Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is now the undisputed heir to the Liberal Party leadership, with some federal MPs conceding the publicity surrounding historical rape allegations against Attorney-General Christian Porter – which he has denied – makes it unlikely he could ever lead the party.
Mr Porter – who has launched defamation action against the ABC and indicated he intends to give evidence on oath that the alleged conduct “never happened” – is currently on mental health leave and is due to resume some of his ministerial duties from March 31.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, who is also on leave because of a heart problem, recently extended her sick leave and there is a growing expectation among some government MPs that she may never resume her portfolio duties.
Senator Reynolds’ former staffer, Brittany Higgins, went public in February with allegations that she was raped by a colleague in the minister’s office in March 2019, heaping pressure on the minister for her handling of the matter.
In more than 50 interviews with The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age about the Liberal Party’s factional groups, MPs also spoke about the political futures of Mr Frydenberg, Mr Porter and Senator Reynolds.
The Melbourne-based Mr Frydenberg, who has been deputy leader of the Liberal Party since he defeated Greg Hunt and former colleague Steve Ciobo in August 2018, is seen as the leader of an “ambition faction” in the Victorian Liberal Party which also incudes ministers Hunt, Alan Tudge, Dan Tehan and Michael Sukkar, and backbenchers Sarah Henderson, Jason Wood, Gladys Liu, Kevin Andrews and David Van.
The sub-grouping of 10 MPs is part of the broader 33-member “Morrison Club”, which also includes the seven members of the NSW Centre Right run by junior minister Alex Hawke and a significant number of MPs in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s prayer group.
The Frydenberg Group, dubbed the “ambition faction” by some, includes traditional moderates such as Mr Hunt and Senator Henderson, who are now squarely in the Morrison Club/Centre Right group and conservatives, such as National Right powerbroker Mr Sukkar and Mr Tudge.