3 Dec 2018

Malcolm Turnbull admonishes government over preselection

12:54 pm on 3 December 2018

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has launched a spectacular intervention in the preselection process of Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly, urging his colleagues not to "capitulate" to threats from the conservative MP.

Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attends a press conference in Parliament House in Canberra on August 22, 2018.

Photo: AFP

Mr Turnbull has also encouraged his successor Scott Morrison to go to the polls shortly after the long summer break, arguing he and the then treasurer had been planning to call an election for March 2 before Mr Turnbull was ousted from the nation's top job.

He denied his comments were part of a personal vendetta against Mr Kelly.

"It's not a question of knocking him off, it's a question that the democratic processes of the Liberal Party be allowed to operate," Mr Turnbull told ABC RN Breakfast.

"What is being proposed to the State Executive is that the State Executive should reindorse Mr Kelly, so that the Liberal Party members of Hughes do not have the opportunity to have their say.

"We've just had a very long debate in New South Wales, in the Liberal Party, about the importance of democracy and grassroot members' participation.

"In my view, the party should allow the preselection process to take its course, and then Mr Kelly will succeed or not."

Mr Turnbull suggested he did not believe Mr Kelly would seek to topple the Government by quitting the party and sitting as an independent.

"But assuming that he has made that threat, then that is the worst and the weakest reason not to have a preselection process," he said.

Mr Turnbull also raised concerns about the Coalition's election prospects, and suggested Mr Morrison should consider going to an early election.

Mr Turnbull said the infighting in Canberra could harm New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian's chances in the state poll, due on 23 March.

"My view is that it would be manifestly and in the best prospects of the Morrison Government to go to the polls as soon as it can after the summer break," he argued.

"In fact my intention, and Scott's intention for that matter, prior to my being removed as prime minister was to go to the polls on the second of March.

"That would be exactly three weeks before the New South Wales state election.

"But Morrison has to got to judge the right timing for an election, but you would understand … that there is a real concern in New South Wales Liberal circles that a very good, outstanding government led by Gladys Berejiklian is going to have its prospects of success diminished because of the brand damage to the Liberal Party caused by the leadership change in August."

Mr Morrison announced last week he would bring forward the 2019 Budget to 2 April, paving the way for an election in mid to late May.

The last available weekend for a standard House and half Senate election is 18 May.

Mr Turnbull infamously described fellow former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott as "miserable ghosts", for sniping from the backbench and disrupting the work of their respective governments.

He denies that moniker applies to him, given this latest intervention, because he has retired from politics.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said discussing Mr Kelly's pre-selection and a March election was "utterly trivial" compared to legislation before the Parliament that would allow law enforcement agencies to gain access to encrypted messages.

He told AM Mr Turnbull's intervention was "not overly helpful" and refused to be drawn further into the debate.

"We've got a bill before the Parliament that would allow for appropriate assistant to government law enforcement agencies in [potential terrorist] circumstances," Mr Porter said.

"There is no more important issue in front of Parliament or the Australian people.

"The issues you've just raised are utterly trivial and insignificant compared to what we are dealing with in a policy sense this week," Mr Porter said.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said it was a matter for the New South Wales Liberal Party and Mr Turnbull was entitled to his view.

"Malcolm Turnbull is a private citizen, he's a member of the Liberal Party in New South Wales and I wish him well," he said.

Mr Cormann said he was aware Mr Turnbull had been considering a March election but was unaware a final decision had been made prior to the leadership change.

Mr Kelly has faced criticism from within his party about how he has handled his time in Parliament, with one member describing him as the "Member for Sky News rather than the Member for Hughes" - a criticism of the amount he spends in the nation's television studios rather than connecting with his electorate.

Mr Kelly, unsurprisingly, disagrees with that description and argues the issues he champions in Parliament are those of concern to his electorate.

No stranger to threatening to quit the party, the conservative backbencher has angered colleagues by the timing of this latest preselection fracas.

It follows the defection of fellow Liberal Julia Banks to the crossbench, and is set to dominate the beginning of the final parliamentary sitting week for 2018.

"One of the things that has frustrated me more than anything else in the last few days and the last few weeks is our obsession to be looking at the one thing that the Labor Party can drive a wedge on us, and that is division," Assistant Minister Anne Ruston told the ABC's National Wrap.

"Everything else this Government has done has been absolutely fantastic. I'll stand by this Government's record if we go to the next election.

"And I've got to say none of this is helpful."