Peter Dutton says he supports Malcolm Turnbull and the policies of the government as the prime minister is moving to overhaul the national energy guarantee in an attempt to stave off a conservative-led revolt that threatens his leadership.
In a post on Twitter, Dutton delivered a nuanced statement of his position, saying Turnbull had his support, and his view remained the same as on Thursday, when he told the Sydney radio host Ray Hadley he would take up any disagreements he had with cabinet colleagues privately.
He had declined an invitation by Hadley on Thursday to disavow the Neg and Turnbull, but did not say he supported the policy. He said if “it gets to a point where I can’t accept what the government is proposing or I don’t agree”, he would resign from the cabinet.
Any frontbench resignation of a senior figure would trigger an internal crisis within the government.
Guardian Australia has not detected any movement on Dutton’s part to foment any internal instability, but is aware that MPs have approached him seeking a political reset after the LNP’s drubbing in the recent Longman byelection.
With the conservative wing of the government restive, the former prime minister Tony Abbott has been escalating his public attacks on Turnbull and the Neg for the past fortnight in an effort to build a confrontation to coincide with the resumption of federal parliament after the winter recess.
Those attacks have been amplified by a group of media commentators hostile to Turnbull – Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, and Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin – attacks that create a negative feedback loop through Liberal party branches.
Turnbull, the energy minister Josh Frydenberg, and the treasurer Scott Morrison, have been working since Tuesday to expedite a package of measures to put downward pressure on power prices to try to persuade a group of backbenchers not to cross the floor on the Neg.
On Friday, the trio worked up an option that would result in the Neg’s emissions reduction target being set in regulation, not in legislation. This is an attempt to address internal claims from some of the rebels that setting the Paris target in legislation is a breach of Australian sovereignty, and also an effort to lock in Labor’s support for the policy.
The Labor states have asked the government to set the target by regulation rather than legislation to make it easier for a future government to scale up. The option under consideration is setting the target by an executive order that cannot be disallowed.
The target would be set via an executive order, and if a government wanted to increase it, it would first have to seek advice from the Australian Energy Regulator and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about the impact of an increase in the target on electricity prices.
In addition, the government is likely to accept all the recommendations of a recent inquiry by the ACCC, which are aimed at lowering power prices.
The changes to the Neg, and the add-on package of power price measures, will be thrashed out at a cabinet dinner on Monday night, with parliament sitting again next week. The Coalition party room meets again next Tuesday.
The government is caught between Labor and its own internal critics. If it can’t contain the breakout within its own ranks, its only prospect of passing the Neg legislation through the House of Representatives is with Labor’s support because of the finely balanced numbers in the chamber.
Conservative backbenchers, including Eric Abetz, Andrew Gee, George Christensen, Kevin Andrews, Tony Pasin, Andrew Hastie, Craig Kelly and Barnaby Joyce have joined Abbott in publicly questioning the Neg. Many have reserved their right to cross the floor.
The junior Nationals frontbencher Keith Pitt, who has not rejected reports he is considering resigning from his assistant ministry position, is yet to confirm what he will do.
The objective of the leadership over the past week has been to halve the number of backbenchers prepared to cross the floor, and contain the objections to the policy held more widely in government ranks and in parts of the ministry.
While the government is pursuing the regulatory option on the Neg as a political fix, and the power price measures will be welcomed, there will also be strong internal objections to the principle of setting a target in subordinate instrument rather than in legislation.