Malcolm Turnbull is trying to head off a fresh round of infighting over his energy policy that has led to leadership rumbles.
The prime minister gathered his senior ministers together for dinner on Sunday night amid growing speculation he could be in strife over the government’s National Energy Guarantee.
But his Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton – and the man being touted as a possible leadership contender – was late, reportedly because his flight was delayed.
It’s understood he missed the dinner, but arrived later at Parliament House after taking a VIP flight from Brisbane, the Courier-Mail reported.
In relation to media stories today, just to make very clear, the Prime Minister has my support and I support the policies of the Government. My position hasn’t changed from my comments last Thursday.
— Peter Dutton (@PeterDutton_MP) August 17, 2018
Mr Dutton has told the prime minister he does not want to run against him, however he did not rule out a challenge in a private phone conversation, The Daily Telegraph reported on Monday.
It comes as the latest Fairfax/Ipsos poll showed the coalition’s primary vote has dropped from 39 to 33 in just a month, and Labor leading the coalition 55 per cent to 45 per cent on a two-party preferred basis.
Some conservative colleagues unhappy with the NEG have begun drifting towards Mr Dutton as their preferred prime minister.
But senior Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne said Mr Turnbull had the backing of his cabinet and the party room.
“There are some people who don’t support the current leader, and that’s quite obvious,” he told the Nine Network.
“The overwhelming majority of my party room are 100 per cent behind Malcolm Turnbull, as is the entire cabinet.”
The leadership chatter grew much louder last week after Mr Dutton warned during a radio interview that further disagreements could lead to his resignation from cabinet.
In a bid to quell the bubbling unrest, the prime minister took to social media to propose a number of changes to his signature energy policy.
Mr Turnbull has promised to wield a “big stick” over electricity retailers who charge too much, and make it easier for power consumers to tell when they are being ripped off.
He has also offered to regulate – rather than legislate – Australia’s commitments to reducing carbon emissions.
During Sunday’s dinner in Canberra, the prime minister was expected to float the idea of abandoning big business tax cuts rather than fighting for them up until the next election, if they are defeated in the Senate.
However, it remains to be seen if these changes will be enough to win over restless colleagues, or whether they could potentially backfire by alienating his supporters.
Mr Turnbull tried to brush off talk of rising numbers against him in the coalition party room.
“I’m focused on getting energy prices down and I’ll leave you to all of the speculation,” he told reporters on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Nationals deputy leader Bridget McKenzie twice refused to say whether she would like to see him stay on as prime minister before eventually saying “yes” when asked for a third time.
“I think Malcolm Turnbull is our prime minister and I would like to see him stay as our prime minister, and that is actually a decision for the Liberal Party,” Senator McKenzie told Sky News.