Brandis attacks Ian Macfarlane for Nationals defection, Shorten says switch is first visible fault line in Turnbull government

Former Liberal minister Ian Macfarlane holds up an ALP membership form, sent to him during Question Time on Thursday. Photo: Alex EllinghausenAttorney-General George Brandis has attacked Ian Macfarlane for defecting to the Nationals Party last week, saying his colleague’s attempt to game the system has left a “very bad taste in people’s mouths.”

It is one of the most high-profile attacks from the Coalition on Macfarlane in recent days, as the fallout continues from his shock defection from the Liberal Party that has left the Turnbull government in disarray.

Senator Brandis on Sunday accused Mr Macfarlane of trying to “game the system,” saying no “backbencher” should be able to force a cabinet reshuffle on Prime Minister Turnbull just by swapping parties.

“I don’t believe that Mr Macfarlane should have done what he did,” Senator Brandis said on Channel Ten’s Bolt Report on Sunday.

“I think it’s left a very bad taste in people’s mouths, the way in which this has been done.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has described the former Liberal minister’s defection to the Nationals as “the first visible fault line” in the Turnbull government.

Mr Shorten says Mr Macfarlane’s shock switch to the junior Coalition partner was in some ways “an even bigger crisis” for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull than the controversy over his Special Minister of State Mal Brough.

“Sooner or later Malcolm Turnbull will have to make a decision about Mal Brough. This guy’s teetering on the edge,” Mr Shorten said in an interview the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.

“But the Ian Macfarlane issue goes to deeper disunity within the Liberal Party.”

The recriminations in the government continued at the weekend with the former industry minister forced to deny he’d told Mr Turnbull he would stay if he was reinstated to the front bench.

Mr Macfarlane, the representative for Groom, is actually a member of Queensland’s Liberal National Party but is seeking local endorsement to switch from the Liberal party room to the Nationals party room after he was dumped from Mr Turnbull’s ministry.

It also emerged that Mr Turnbull had pulled out of a fundraising event he was scheduled to attend with Macfarlane on Sunday.

Mr Shorten told Insiders that since the leadership change, the Prime Minister had “run the line that I could get right of the previous leader and everything’s fine” when all the while his Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss had been in talks with Mr Macfarlane behind the scenes.

“Your Deputy Prime Minister has been negotiating with an unhappy former Liberal minister to change parties,” Mr Shorten said.

“Now, maybe people think that’s just the way of politics. But if your Deputy Prime Minister knows that this is going to embarrass the leader Malcolm Turnbull, and it clearly is embarrassing, if he knows it’s going to make Malcolm Turnbull angry, and it clearly has … there’s a real issue there.”

He said Mr Turnbull would face a test in whether he gave in and returned Mr Macfarlane to cabinet, a decision that could “make all the younger Liberals very angry”.

“Now, I’m sure they will be working overtime to paper over the cracks, but this is the first visible fault line of a government which is bitterly divided,” Mr Shorten said.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Sky News’ Australian Agenda on Sunday it had been “a difficult week” for the government, which is also under pressure from Labor over Mr Brough’s involvement in the Peter Slipper affair.

On Mr Macfarlane’s defection, he said the Member for Groom’s preselection had been “ratified on the basis he was sitting in the Liberal Party room” and it was by no means a “fait accompli” that he could transfer to the Nationals as that would have to be approved by the LNP state executive.

“Potentially other people would have sought preselection if they knew that it was going to be a National Party seat or an LNP seat resulting in that person sitting in the National Party party room,” Mr Dutton said.

with Gareth Hutchens

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