The Coalition faces the prospect of fighting a snap election with a severely depleted bank account and a raft of seats still without a Liberal candidate, compared to a cashed-up and energised Australian Labor Party.
A besieged Malcolm Turnbull said Australian voters “will be crying out for an election” following tumult over the prime ministership.
Already mobilised by the Super Saturday byelections, Labor has preselected most federal candidates, including contenders in marginal government-held seats. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has begun campaigning in winnable seats.
In contrast, it is understood the government is yet to preselect candidates in 19 of the 20 most marginal seats held by Labor, and a senior Liberal source said the party was in a “dire financial position”.
A general election is due to be held by May 18 next year. The timing is made difficult by state elections in Victoria in November and NSW in March, as well as the Christmas and Easter breaks and school holidays.
Mr Turnbull on Thursday announced he would quit Parliament and trigger a byelection if a leadership vote was forced on Friday.
Asked when an election would be held, he said “the public will be crying out for an election, clearly”.
Liberal MP Craig Kelly told Fairfax Media that an early election was “more likely” if Peter Dutton was installed as leader and solicitor-general’s advice on his eligibility to stand in the current Parliament was not definitive. This was because Mr Dutton would probably sell the childcare centres that are under question, then go to the polls to ensure his eligibility was beyond doubt.
Mr Kelly rejected suggestions the party was not prepared for an early election. He said party officials can “move very quickly” to preselect candidates and a transition to Mr Dutton as prime minister would boost the Liberal Party coffers.
“I think a lot of people have been holding off donating to the party because they have been unclear what was happening with the leadership. I think once there’s a clear direction there will be a flow of funds,” he said.
The Liberal Party federal secretariat did not confirm how many candidates it had preselected. However sources said they believed preselection in marginal Labor-held seats had been finalised only in the Townsville seat of Herbert.
The attention and resources of the party’s NSW division is also understood to be torn between the forthcoming March state election and the federal election.
Preselections have not taken place in key electorates including the marginal Labor-held seats of Lindsay, Eden-Monaro and Dobell. Preselections are also pending in seats where incumbents face a challenge such as Gilmore (Ann Sudmalis), Hughes (Craig Kelly) and Bennelong (John Alexander). An early election would likely force the state executive to intervene and select candidates directly.
The party is also in “a dire financial position”, according to a senior Liberal source, who asked “What’s Peter Dutton going to do ... he can’t afford that even if he does sell his childcare centres.”
Liberal fundraising efforts have fallen severely short, as Fairfax Media revealed on Tuesday. It includes Mr Kelly, who has contributed just $5000 of a $75,000 fundraising target, and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells who had a target of $100,000 but had yet to raise any money by the end of July.
The party also won’t have the assistance of another $1.75 million donation from Mr Turnbull if he is dumped as prime minister.
A Labor strategist told Fairfax Media he believed an election would most likely be held in October – before the Victorian state election - and Labor was “well prepared”.
However, ABC election analyst Antony Green said he would be “surprised” if a Dutton government called a snap poll.
“Dutton is unpopular, if he wants to win an election he has to beat Labor around the brains. You are not going to do that in an election campaign when the party doesn’t yet have candidates or money,” he said.
“If you are going to run a scare campaign against Labor policies you are going to have to run advertising. Where are they going to get the money from?”
Several Nationals MPs have raised the prospect of joining the crossbench if the Liberal leadership changes, in a move that could threaten the Coalition's one-seat majority in the lower house.
Sydney University constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said the Governor-General would seek assurance that a new prime minister had support in the lower house.
“If there is doubt about that ... the Governor-General could ask the person to face the Parliament first to see whether or not they have confidence,” she said.
Nicole Hasham is environment and energy correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.