Demolition Derby: ScoMo faces threats from all sides
THE Liberal Party has become a demolition derby with all senior figures' reputations dented and no opportunity for unity escaping a side-swipe.
And the bad news for Scott Morrison is there are several laps to go in this race with a packed field of full-throttle egos.
As the new Prime Minister attempts to wrench the Coalition government onto a straight course this week, he keeps colliding with one or more of those egos.
His biggest problem is Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
The Dutton childcare centres receive Commonwealth subsidies and it is not clear whether this disqualifies the minister under section 44 of the Constitution.
The minister has three legal opinions that put him in the clear, but the issue is open to interpretation and only the High Court can settle the matter.
Mr Morrison said he didn't want to launch a "lawyers' picnic" with a High Court referral. And he certainly doesn't need a by-election in Mr Dutton's seat of Dickson, which might happen should the judges disqualify him.
But the antagonism towards lawyers' picnics didn't exist earlier in the year when the government insisted on four of them.
They resulted in four by-elections when the targets were three Labor MPs and a crossbench member. When it comes to government MPs, the lawyers can starve.
The anxiety within the government over a possible Dutton referral was revealed in a heavy-handed reprisal threat by Attorney-General Christian Porter: If Mr Dutton goes to the High Court, some Labor MPs might follow.
"Who else is to be referred?" he said in Parliament on Thursday.
"There are a number of people sitting here - indeed, there are a couple I can think of on that side - where that standard that they're now suggesting should exist, an absence of absolute certainty in a matter of this type should warrant a referral.
"Perhaps (Labor will) ask another question so we can talk about those people."
Mr Porter is confident Mr Dutton is in the clear.
However, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop are not so sure.
Ms Bishop, the former foreign minister who was miffed by her lack of support in the leadership ballot from colleagues she had helped, left open the possibility she would cross the floor to vote for a referral.
The former prime minister hit the telephone and Twitter in his New York apartment to make clear he was still in the derby, if not the Parliament.
"The point I have made to @ScottMorrisonMP and other colleagues is that given the uncertainty around Peter Dutton's eligibility, acknowledged by the Solicitor-General, he should be referred to the High Court, as Barnaby (Joyce) was, to clarify the matter," Mr Turnbull wrote, no doubt in a spirit of helpfulness Mr Morrison could have done without.
Mr Turnbull's intervention on the Dutton matter might have been a case of him intruding rather than assisting. But surely he had a legitimate interest in the Liberal preselection for the October 20 by-election to replace him in Wentworth?
Possibly, except he backed an entrant who wasn't favoured by the Prime Minister.
Mr Turnbull was mightily pleased his man David Sharma prevailed easily over the Prime Minister's woman Katherine O'Regan.
It was not so much Mr Turnbull had defied Mr Morrison but that he had made him look foolish and impotent on a high-profile matter.
The Liberals want to counter the accusation they don't encourage woman into Parliament and the Prime Minister failed in his first attempt to do so.
The party is unable to completely reject the idea of quotas for women as opposed to vaguely defined strategies to reach "targets".
Ms Bishop has kept the issue running by backing quotas and supporting sitting women who say they were "bullied" during the tumultuous leadership showdown week and want an inquiry, which Mr Morrison wants to avoid because of the divisions that would result.
So it would seem that with Peter, Julie and Malcolm, the Prime Minister has his full allocation of troublemakers.
But then, there is always Tony.
On October 19 - coincidentally the eve of the Wentworth by-election - a group that might be called the anti-Turnbull high command, will hold a panel discussion for East Sydney conservatives.
They will include MPs Tony Abbott, Andrew Hastie, Craig Kelly and Senator Jim Molan.
The topic for discussion will be "Back from the brink … saving Australia from the Left's agenda".
Mr Abbott and crew have made clear there is still some saving to be done and they want to make sure Mr Morrison doesn't take the Left lane.
This should be a warning for the Prime Minister as it was Abbott agitation and his clumsy handling of his leadership proxy Peter Dutton's leadership bid that caused that week of turmoil. Remember, Mr Abbott declined to support an energy policy that had been approved by the Liberal partyroom three times. And he had threatened to cross the floor to vote against the government.
The pro-Abbott opinion drivers saw no problem with that but are furious over the actions this week of Ms Bishop and Mr Turnbull.
Mr Turnbull's high-profile interventions are being condemned by people who had no trouble with Mr Abbott's intrusions from the backbench aimed at bringing down a Liberal prime minister.
Scott Morrison knows this, and knows he will have to drive carefully to prevent demolition of his leadership.
- Continue the conversation with Malcolm Farr on Twitter @farrm51