Liberal party conservatives Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton are positioning themselves in the event Malcolm Turnbull’s position ultimately becomes untenable, with both using Monday’s negative Newspoll milestone as a trigger to publicly express interest in the top job.
Dutton told Guardian Australia over the weekend he had ambitions to lead the Liberal party one day – a message he repeated on Monday – while Morrison used an interview on the ABC to signal he was interested in the event the party leadership fell vacant.
Morrison told the ABC on Monday night he would not prosecute his ambitions while Turnbull remained in the top job, and he insisted the incumbent remained the right prime minister to lead the party not just to the next election “but beyond”.
But the treasurer said that, “down the track, if an opportunity presented itself”, he would be interested in putting his hand up.
Dutton is the favoured candidate of government conservatives but Morrison also has aspirations. Both are currently expressing loyalty to Turnbull.
While cabinet colleagues rallied both to defend Turnbull, and also stake out their own territory in the event current internal calculations changed, Tony Abbott continued to stir the pot on energy during a tour of coal communities in Victoria.
The former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce also entered the fray. Joyce said Turnbull would need to consider a transition in the event he could not turn around the government’s political fortunes, “much deeper into the year”, in December.
“I think Malcolm’s not a fool, he’d know that himself,” Joyce told Sky News. “We’re stating here the bleeding obvious.
“Nobody wants to actually go to a federal election which you know you’re going to lose because it’s like playing in the losing grand final. No one wants to play in the losing side.
“And you’d have an obligation to all around you that, if you honestly believe that is the case, then you must do something about it and do the honourable thing and start grooming an alternative”.
The National party does not determine who leads the Liberal party but Joyce’s comments perhaps reciprocate an effort by Turnbull earlier in the year to ratchet up pressure on his leadership of the junior Coalition partner at the height of the imbroglio over his personal life.
With positioning in play around him, Turnbull dug in to defend his record and snapped back at Abbott for his outspoken comments on energy policy, and a specific suggestion on Monday that the federal government should force AGL to keep its ageing coal-fired power station open.
Turnbull flatly rejected that as a course of action. He said the Liberal party was founded in the 1940s to prevent Labor nationalising assets and the Coalition should be resolute in opposing such things.
Turnbull also said his government did not want to start building new coal-fired power stations because that was the private sector’s job.
“I’m the leader of the ‘Liberal’ party, do you remember the Liberal party?” he said during a Daily Telegraph interview broadcast live on the internet. “That’s the one that believes in free enterprise. It’s the Labor party that wants to nationalise things and have the government doing everything.”
Abbott used Monday’s Newspoll, which showed the Turnbull government has trailed Labor for 30 consecutive polls, to advise Turnbull on the direction he thinks the Coalition ought to be taking to ensure it wins the next election.
Pushing the argument that coal-fired power must be included in Australia’s future energy mix – a theme from last week’s “Monash forum” controversy – Abbott told 2GB radio’s Ray Hadley on Monday that AGL should not be allowed to close its ageing Liddell power station in New South Wales if it will leave the National Electricity Network with a shortfall in dispatchable generation capacity.
Last December AGL confirmed it would close Liddell in 2022 and replace the coal plant with a mix of renewables, gas power for peak periods and battery storage, which prompted the energy market operator to warn that an additional 850 megawatts of dispatchable generation capacity would be needed in NSW if AGL failed to complete all three stages of its transition plan.
The company’s decision to retire the coal plant defied extraordinary public pressure from the Turnbull government. Turnbull has been pushing AGL to prolong the operating life of Liddell until the Snowy Hydro 2.0 scheme becomes operational, earmarked for 2025.
“Governments should be very reluctant to compulsory acquire assets but, let’s face it, it is an essential service,” Abbott told 2GB radio on Monday. “Electricity is not an optional extra in the modern world, it is an absolute essential service, and if a company is threatening an essential service it is up to the government to take appropriate action and keep that essential service going.
“There has been a lot of jawboning of AGL but perhaps it is the time for strong-arming because we just cannot afford to lose Liddell.”
Abbott made the comments during his Pollie Pedal charity ride as it passed through Victoria’s coal country. On Sunday, he had filmed a video of himself and Liberal MP Kevin Andrews standing outside the de-commissioned Hazelwood coal-fired power station in the La Trobe Valley to say wholesale power prices in Victoria had risen substantially since it had closed.
“It’s a tragedy that this station closed,” he said in the video. “We can’t afford to lose more coal-fired power stations closing soon.”
Turnbull hit back on Monday afternoon, reminding Abbott that the federal government was not in the business of building power stations.
“This talk about strong-arming and nationalising assets, I mean that’s not the way we operate,” he told the Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine. “Nationalising assets is what the Liberal party was founded to stop governments doing actually. One of the great motivating factors behind the growth and the victory of Robert Menzies in 1949 was to stop the Labor party from nationalising the banks.”
Asked if he thought he could win the next election, Turnbull said: “Yes, absolutely.”
Dutton provided some support for Turnbull’s views on Monday, saying he was very reluctant to pick winners or nationalise any industries.
“I expressed instinctive reluctance about us nationalising or being involved in or picking winners or investing tax payers money into particular projects,” he told Sky News.
“It is a no, but with this caveat – there is market failure, there is concern within families and businesses who are trying to compete with companies in New Zealand or within our part of the world and further abroad, and they are paying some of the highest energy costs in the world.
“I think Josh Frydenberg has come up with an elegant solution, and ultimately though, what we want to deliver … is affordable prices for households and businesses.”