What’s so momentous that the country must discard its prime minister?
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What’s so momentous that the country must discard its prime minister?

The dismal cycle of government leadership challenges has resumed.

Once 40 per cent of a political party’s parliamentarians have voted to remove a prime minister, the Australian people are grimly familiar with the inevitable outcome.

But the overarching question is why? What’s so momentous that the country must discard its prime minister, disrupt its parliament, confound its people and unsettle its business community partway through a term?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media after his party room win on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media after his party room win on Tuesday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Malcolm Turnbull is widely considered in the electorate to be a disappointment but not a disaster. And he remains less unpopular than the Labor leader, Bill Shorten. And Tuesday in Parliament was big on movement but small on meaning.

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Turnbull merely promised to maintain the status quo. And Dutton gave no policy speech, pitched no big ideas, set out no great principle.

The most immediate explanation for the upheaval is that the Liberal Party is in a crisis of confidence over Turnbull’s ability to win the next election.

The party’s conservative faction has always loathed Turnbull as suspiciously left-wing but tolerated him as their ticket to power.

Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton on the backbench on Tuesday afternoon.

Former home affairs minister Peter Dutton on the backbench on Tuesday afternoon.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The Longman byelection in Queensland last month convinced many in the party that Turnbull had lost his usefulness.

By turning to Peter Dutton as their alternative, the conservatives certainly can’t be accused of engaging in a popularity contest. As Dutton himself concedes, he’s hardly Mr Charisma. Whenever credible pollsters ask the voters to name their preferred Liberal leader, Dutton has never cracked double digits.

The conservatives are turning to Dutton as a statement of conviction and an act of reclamation. Dutton is one of their own.

“Dutton certainly has a lot of work to do to win over the electorate,” said one leading conservative after Tuesday’s vote, “but at least he’ll give it a go.”

But Turnbull seems to be governing according to the conservatives’ agenda already. He is in a condition of perpetual appeasement. Just in the last few days he’s surrendered any effort to control carbon emissions from power plants, as Tony Abbott had demanded. And agreed to force the breakup of power companies that abuse market power, as Barnaby Joyce had insisted.

So what could Dutton do differently? The answer is two-fold. Dutton offered only hints, but you can expect to hear him lay out plans to cut the immigration intake to ease pressure on infrastructure and housing. You can expect to hear him promise a much grander infrastructure plan.

You can expect him to offer a more generous funding deal for Catholic schools. And to pitch for more coal-fired power and lower power prices. The tax cuts for big business would be consigned to history’s dustbin.

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But a senior supporter of Turnbull says that a chastened prime minister will move on most of this agenda in any case, because the backbench wants it. So why change leaders for the same outcome?

“Even when Malcolm does it, everyone knows he doesn’t believe it,” says an influential conservative. "This is becoming an existential crisis of belief for the Liberal Party.”

So conservative policy isn’t enough for the conservatives. It has to be implemented by a conservative. And it’s not even a traditionally ideologically conservative agenda but a populist one.

If that’s starting to sound a bit like Pauline Hanson, that’s no coincidence.

A Dutton government would move to the right to try to annex the One Nation movement and recover its votes.

That’s why.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.