Is It On? Maybe! Here's Why

Energy prices and climate change. It's a familiar story.

Every press conference, every newspaper story, every tweet, every arched eyebrow takes on a new significance, as every mouth in Canberra whispers one question:

"Is it on?"

A barely papered over crack in the Coalition about energy has ripped wide open in recent days, as the conservative wing -- egged on by agitator-in-chief Tony Abbott -- slam the National Energy Guarantee as insufficient to lower power bills.

Abbott seems to be enjoying the latest leadership drama (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

It has led to Malcolm Turnbull backing three separate energy policies since Friday morning, going from a plan to legislate the Paris climate agreement targets to lower emissions by 26 percent, to making it a regulated target instead, to dropping it entirely from the NEG.

When it's on, it's on, and anything can happen.

The scuttlebutt from parliament is that home affairs minister Peter Dutton is sounding out colleagues for a potential run at the leadership, with the plan to turn around Malcolm Turnbull's flagging poll numbers on a platform of tough borders and power bill relief.

Turnbull and Dutton say they're on a unity ticket (AAP Image/Glenn Hunt)

Here's how we got here.

Is it on?

Multiple reports have Dutton, arguably the most powerful minister in the government behind Turnbull and a true conservative flagbearer, doing the numbers for a potential challenge to the PM. Yes, Dutton came out over the weekend and said he supported Turnbull -- but he didn't rule out a challenge if asked, a familiar tactic for those weighing up a crack at the top job.

It's not clear that Dutton has the numbers to win any potential challenge, though. Dutton barely holds his own QLD seat of Dickson, and as the stony-faced owner of one of the most unpopular portfolios in immigration, he's hardly the charismatic choice. But with Turnbull's poll numbers tanking, and the Coalition on track for defeat if an election were to be held today, don't rule out self-interested politicians panicking and jumping ship.

Why is it on?

Energy prices and climate change. It's a familiar story. The same policy area that brought down Turnbull as opposition leader in 2009, that helped bring down Kevin Rudd the first time, that helped bring down Julia Gillard thanks to her famous "no carbon tax" promise. It's been ten years, and nearly as many acronyms -- CPRS, ETS, EIS, now the NEG -- and Australian politics is still at war with the planet and the power market, and the issue seems ready to take down yet another leader.

It comes down to a balance between action on climate change to lower emissions -- which could lead to higher power prices -- and lower prices, which could lead to higher emissions.

A rift has ripped open between the moderate Turnbull supporters and the more conservative Coalition cabal like Abbott and Craig Kelly, who see lower power bills as the key to election victory, and any energy compromise with Labor as a loss.

Several renegade government MPs threatened to cross the floor and vote against Turnbull's policy, sending the PM into damage control and to throw up three separate energy policies since Friday.

Coalition MPs are panicking. They've lost 38 Newspolls in a row -- more than the 30 that Turnbull famously cited as the benchmark for his challenge to Abbott in 2015 -- and the shocking result in the Longman by-election set alarm bells ringing. Queensland is the key to victory in the next election, due by May 2019.

Considering 38 Newspoll losses, considering a terrible primary vote in Longman, and considering the looming figure of One Nation gobbling up conservative votes, it's not hard to see why some might be turning to a strongman, Queensland-based leader like Dutton to help save some furniture.

How long can it remain on for?

This is the big question. Dutton says he supports the PM, as Turnbull again pointed out at a Monday press conference, but it might not be long before someone else forces the issue and calls a spill motion hoping to resolve the simmering leadership issue.

A spill will need to be called while parliament is sitting. Before the end of the year, that means the rest of this week, two weeks in September, two in October, and a week each in November and December -- the infamous 'killing season' of Australian politics.

Often in the leadership contest stakes, it takes more than one challenge or spill to unseat the leader. We saw it with Abbott in 2015, we saw it with Rudd 2.0 in 2013, we saw it with Keating and Hawke.

The rumours are that Dutton is shoring up the numbers, but would be defeated in a spill if it were called today. But an initial challenge is often a bodyblow to a leader, wounding their credibility, and meaning a second challenge might succeed.

So while we might not be in imminent danger of a PM Dutton, don't write it off before Christmas.