A series of damaging leaked text messages were the hot topic of conversation in parliament, while the words ‘leadership spill’ once again emerged.
Scott Morrison’s character has again been put under the microscope after a parliamentary inquiry quizzed his department over a series of leaked text messages.
A heated exchange broke out in a Senate estimates hearing on Monday after Labor’s Katy Gallagher pursued questioning on texts involving Barnaby Joyce, Gladys Berejiklian and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham accused the Senator of sparking a “ridiculous” attack to secure political points.
But the clash got fiery when Senator Gallagher pushed for answers on how a text exchange between Mr Morrison and Mr Macron ended up in The Daily Telegraph in the fallout of the AUKUS agreement.
The texts were released after Mr Macron told Australian journalists at the G20 summit that he “knew” Mr Morrison had lied to him over plans to scrap the French submarine deal.
Mr Birmingham originally refused to answer questions on the matter, insisting he had addressed the issue at the last Senate estimates hearing in October.
However, the texts were not reported until November. When this was pointed out to the Minister, he apologised but refused to entertain questions the Prime Minister himself had leaked the message.
“Are we suggesting that News Limited journalists have access to the Prime Minister’s text messages without authority? Is that the land we’re in?” an exasperated Senator Gallagher asked.
“No, Senator … I don’t have conclusive knowledge about how a newspaper came to have such statements,” Mr Birmingham replied.
Officials later confirmed there was no investigation launched into how the text messages leaked, leading Senator Gallagher to conclude the leak had come from the Prime Minister’s office.
“You all must know it’s from the Prime Minister and his office, otherwise you’d imagine every security agency across the Australian Public Service would come crashing down, wanting to examine how the PM’s private communications ends up in a newspaper,” she told the hearing.
Mr Birmingham’s defence of the Prime Minister comes after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg assured Mr Morrison would lead the Liberal Party to the next election – but wasn’t coy in admitting he would put his hand up for the top job “at the right time”.
While Mr Morrison’s front bench allies have thrown their support behind him, Mr Frydenberg told ABC Radio his ambitions of becoming Liberal leader were of “no secret”.
“I’m hoping to win the election and I’m hoping to see Scott Morrison continue as Prime Minister,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“I’ve made no secret that (being PM) would be something I put my hand up for at the right time, but we’re not looking that time right now.”
Last week, Defence Minister Peter Dutton downplayed whispers he was vying for the top spot, despite being the one to challenge former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2018 before losing the contest to Mr Morrison.
“We’re weeks away from going into caretaker, we’re on the eve of an election, and I have done my best as Defence Minister to prepare our country for a different time ahead than I think what we’ve known,” Mr Dutton told 3AW last week.
“I want to be the Defence Minister in Scott Morrison’s government.”
Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles last week said that while it had been a bad week for Mr Morrison, it had been a “fantastic week for Peter”.
“The whole week has played out with a kind of horrible inevitability of a David Attenborough documentary,” Mr Marles told the Nine Network last week.
“The PM is looking like the slowest wildebeest of the herd, and we’ve seen Peter (Dutton’s) head popping up from behind the bushes like the lion licking his chops.”
The coalition’s approval rating is at its lowest since the 2018 leadership spill, according to the latest Newspoll.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told Channel 7 on Monday there “will not be a leadership spill” ahead of the May election.