Turnbull is starting to push his progressive hand

Turnbull is starting to push his progressive hand

Having given them four weeks to get used to the new Government, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week commenced the delicate task of pushing back against his harshest critics.

Not the Labor Opposition, but conservative MPs within his own party.

Turnbull had gone to some effort when he first became leader to placate the right, not only in the Liberal Party but also in the Nationals. This reportedly included disavowing any move to reintroduce an emissions trading scheme or exchange the plebiscite on same-sex marriage for a parliamentary vote.

Such commitments would have provided some comfort to the right, but also exposed Turnbull to the obvious criticism that nothing about the Government had materially changed.

However, in a series of statements and announcements last week, the Prime Minister finally started to show his progressive hand. In detailing how his regime differed from Abbott’s, Turnbull was testing the limits of hardliners’ opposition to his planned progressive reforms to better understand how far and how quickly he could move the Government to the more competitive political centre.

First the PM referred to his Government’s support for greenhouse-friendly public transport in contrast to the Abbott regime’s narrower focus on fossil fuel-intensive roads.

Then there was the pointed omission of any praise for the harsh Abbott-Hockey economic reforms when Turnbull paid tribute to the departing former Treasurer. This was followed by an announcement that the 2014 budget’s cuts to family tax benefits would be softened to secure Labor support.

These hints of the PM’s determination to put his progressive mark on the Government were joined by an announcement that funding for climate contrarian Bjorn Lomberg’s think tank was no longer available, and a parliamentary statement denouncing continued efforts to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.

Each of these moves can be seen as an attempt by the PM to find the weak spots in Liberal conservatives’ resistance to progressive policies, as well as identifying the points where the right (and their supporters in the tabloid media) are likely to dig in before waging an unedifying war upon their own kind.

Same-sex marriage appears to be once such touch-point, given it was the only issue that provoked squeals of indignation from the right last week when PM Turnbull canvassed the binding nature of a marriage equality plebiscite on the Parliament.

“When the Australian people make their decision, that decision will stick. It will be decisive. It will be respected by this Government and by this Parliament and this nation,” Turnbull said.

Former Liberal Senate Leader, Eric Abetz, hit the airwaves, labelling a proposal to automatically legalise same-sex marriage if the plebiscite was successful as unhelpful and an ambush.

Even before Turnbull had addressed the issue in Parliament, arch-conservative Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells warned the PM to tread carefully on the matter or risk alienating the Liberal Party’s conservative base.

Speaking to the National Press Club in her capacity as the newly-appointed Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Fierravanti-Wells said the party’s “mostly conservative” base was “devastated” by the leadership change, and that she had done her best to talk people into staying “for the good of the Liberal Party that we all serve”.

“A Coalition policy that directly supports same-sex marriage could place under threat some of our most marginal seats which have disproportionately high religious and migrant communities,” she said. The Assistant Minister based this assertion on her own analysis of the religious and cultural makeup of 14 marginal seats across Australia.

However, the most recent opinion poll on the subject suggests 69 per cent of all voters now support same-sex marriage, including 53 per cent of Coalition voters.

These numbers suggest Turnbull could attract more “new” Liberal voters by taking a centrist position on marriage equality, than the number of existing voters he’d lose by doing so.

Having identified same-sex marriage as one of the points on which the right will aggressively push back, Turnbull desperately needs those opinion polls to be accurate.

The Coalition’s conservatives may be prepared to waive their principles on welfare cuts and free speech in the interests of party unity, but it appears they’ve decided to make opposition to same-sex marriage a totemic issue.

Consequently, Turnbull needs to convince the right that opposition to marriage equality stands between them and re-election. Even then, the conservatives may still prefer electoral oblivion to having to concede the issue to their new progressive overlord.

Simply denying factionalism exists won’t help Turnbull

Simply denying factionalism exists won’t help Turnbull

When Malcolm Turnbull became opposition leader in 2008, Paul Keating reportedly gave then PM Kevin Rudd a free character assessment of his new opponent. Describing the former Rhodes scholar as brilliant and utterly fearless, Keating is said to have comforted Rudd with the additional observation that Turnbull had no judgement.

It took only a year for that assessment to be vindicated. First Turnbull failed to exercise reasonable due diligence with the information provided by Godwin Grech. Then he miscalculated the pushback from the Liberal’s hard right against his insistence the party support Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

Now, barely a month into the Turnbull era, there are troubling indications the new Prime Minister still has a problem with poor political judgement.

Despite promising a return to a cabinet style of government, in which all major decisions are shared, Turnbull hastily struck a new coalition agreement with the Nationals soon after becoming Liberal leader. The agreement reportedly locks the Turnbull Government into opposing any return to carbon pricing, keeping the plebiscite on gay marriage, and transferring responsibility for water policy to the Nationals.

Turnbull clearly saw a need to mollify the Nationals’ conservatives and agrarian socialists who were horrified at his return and threatening to dissolve the coalition, but given the Liberals’ junior partners were unlikely to walk away from their cushy ministerial suites and salaries, it is arguable whether he needed to give away so much so soon.

This ready willingness to recognise the views of the traditionalists in the National Party also makes Turnbull’s weekend comments about the lack of factions in the Liberal Party particularly reckless, if not plain foolish.

Of course there are cohorts and collectives within the Liberal Party; these are usually based on political philosophies but are sometimes also built around personalities. The factionalised nature of the party is patently obvious given it traditionally accommodates a broad spectrum of people with right of centre views including those of conservative, progressive and libertarian persuasions.

It’s fair enough for the Liberals to prefer not to use Labor terminology to describe elements of their own party; for example, Labor has a caucus whereas the Liberals have a party room. The Libs similarly reject the word factions, because it smacks of Labor tribalism.

But whether he uses the specific word or not, it is simply silly for Turnbull to argue that the Liberal Party does not experience factionalism.

A casual perusal of the history of any federal, state or territory division of the Liberal Party will reveal a litany of factional manoeuvrings including ruthless coups and backroom deals at council and conference meetings, accusations of branch-stacking, and questionable pre-selection outcomes.

The battles between the NSW Liberal moderates and conservatives are as legendary as they are brutal, with the moderates now said to have the upper hand in the state division. Factional tussles in the Victorian Division have been more personality based, such as that between the Costello and Kroger camps.

It could also be argued the South Australian Liberals remain in opposition at the state level because of factional infighting, although it was the hard right Liberal Senator from this state, Nick Minchin, who rallied conservative MPs at the federal level to install Tony Abbott as the leader who returned the party to national government. In keeping with the shift back to Turnbull, the moderates are now said to be dominant in the SA Libs.

Even on this particular occasion, Turnbull was confronted by considerable evidence to the contrary.

The PM shared the podium at the NSW Liberal State Council with new state president Trent Zimmerman, described by the media as an “influential member of the dominant moderate faction”. By virtue of that position, in addition to whatever merit he might possess, Zimmerman is expected to be pre-selected by the party to replace former Treasurer Joe Hockey when he retires from the Parliament.

Even if Turnbull had overlooked this detail, he should have been particularly conscious of a factional backroom deal that had earlier been struck at the meeting, which watered down a proposal developed by former PM John Howard to give grassroots party members a say in pre-selecting candidates for all state and federal seats.

Significantly, this reform was proposed by the president of the Warringah federal electorate conference, which essentially is the local branch of the Liberal Party responsible for running the election campaign for its candidate – one Tony Abbott.

So it was hardly surprising that Turnbull was met with jeers and snorts of derision when he claimed the Liberal Party was not run by factions or backroom deals; his own faction, the moderate faction, had just rolled an Abbott-aligned initiative by means of a back-room deal.

In short, the PM’s comment reflected a lack of judgement that was only overshadowed by his lack of self-awareness. He was either being deliberately disingenuous or simply talking through his hat – and neither interpretation is particularly reassuring.

Self-evidently, it is early days yet, and these poor decisions could be attributed to inevitable teething problems as the Prime Minister fine-tunes the way he communicates with Liberal Party members and MPs as well as the broader community.

But to overcome the misjudgement, Turnbull has to stop denying his party has factional challenges or that deals will be done to accommodate the differing demands. As he learned over the weekend, saying otherwise will simply aggravate those who know it patently isn’t true.

Labor is by no means perfect on this front, but at least it acknowledges the value of having differing political philosophies within its party and provides forums for debates to occur (even if much of that discussion still takes place behind closed doors).

Instead of trying to wish the Liberal Party’s factions away, Turnbull should acknowledge the broad church of political values that reside within the party, as John Howard did before him, and establish the necessary expectation that trade-offs and concessions will be required by all.

This is what he is already doing in practice – evidenced by the dodgy deal with the Nationals, who are in many ways just an extension of the Liberal right. To avoid further unnecessary scoffs and scorn, Turnbull needs to tailor his language to match his acceptance of the Liberals’ factional reality.

The myth of two Malcolm Frasers

The myth of two Malcolm Frasers

The tribute, if it could be called that, from Greens leader Christine Milne said it all.

Adding her words to the growing commentary on the death of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Milne said: “Fraser’s memory will never be free of the controversy and turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. But then and also in later years he courageously offered leadership in social justice and provided a vision for an Australia that truly embraced a fair go for everyone including refugees.”

In drawing the distinction between Fraser’s actions in opposition and then government (when he was vilified by progressives) and during his twilight years (when he became their darling), Milne attempts to reconcile the right-wing and left-wing philosophies espoused by Fraser as being from different periods of his life.

But is this an accurate characterisation? Can Fraser only be feted as a progressive hero because of what he did in his latter years? Or is the insistence on ignoring his moderate credentials while PM more a refusal to acknowledge that socially progressive views can sit comfortably with conservative economic views, as they once did within the Liberal Party?

Fraser’s political philosophy was always unapologetically of this nature: a lefty on social issues while staunchly right-wing on economic matters.

The Australian Conservation Foundation notes today Fraser was a committed conservationist back in the mid-1960s when he was an early member of their governing council. On coming to government he was able to realise that philosophy, ending sand mining on Fraser Island, proclaiming Kakadu National Park, prohibiting oil exploration and drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, and declaring the first stage of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

It was also as prime minister that Fraser first put out the welcome mat for refugees, fostered the beginnings of a multicultural Australia, and established the Human Rights Commission. His government introduced the family allowance for low-income families, indexation for pensions and unemployment benefits, and extension of the supporting mothers’ benefit to all sole parents.

However on economic issues, Fraser was a conservative – a protectionist who resisted his colleagues’ inclination to open up Australia’s economy to international markets, and a harsh critic of the trade union movement. He oversaw a period of high unemployment and inflation, and a drop in the real value of welfare payments. He also scrapped the universal healthcare system, known at the time as Medibank.

Milne and others who inhabit the left side of the political spectrum are not alone today in grappling with the allegedly dichotomous nature of Fraser’s politics.

The former PM is the third longest serving Liberal prime minister, yet his former party colleagues are having to tread carefully today to pay fair tribute to the man who brought the party back from the ignomy of defeat by the populist Gough Whitlam, but in recent years also very publicly disowned the Liberal Party as a hollow fraud.

Fraser resigned from the party he once led in late 2009, after arch-conservative Tony Abbott prevailed over the moderate Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in a leadership ballot, due to concerns the party had lost its way and no longer represented traditional liberal values.

Once Fraser’s resignation became known, conservative MP Andrew Robb dismissed it as unimportant, noting, “We’ve become used to Malcolm disagreeing with our positions on many issues for nearly a quarter of a century,” while the progressive Petro Georgiou (and former Fraser staffer) said the former PM’s resignation “should be viewed with a great deal of sadness. It should be viewed as the action of a man who takes his convictions very seriously.”

Fraser’s criticisms of his former party have ramped up since then, particularly on human rights’ issues and the Coalition Government’s treatment of asylum seekers. In recent times he took to the progressives’ favourite medium, Twitter, to share these views. And in his last opinion piece, published just last month, Fraser defended the Chair of the Human Rights Commission against the Government’s attacks on her integrity, saying the HRC is more important than ever to safeguard our existing freedoms.

It would be wrong to characterise these as the words of a former conservative ‘destroyer’ now seeking redemption through progressive utterances. On the contrary, the man who brought down the Whitlam government is the same man who until yesterday railed against the injustices of the Abbott Government. The same man with the same deeply held conservative beliefs on economic issues as well as progressive beliefs on social matters.

Considering the state of today’s political landscape, it would be fair to say most of Abbott’s Liberals are as uncomfortable with a Liberal holding both those views as Christine Milne appears to be.

Former Liberal PM John Howard stuck to the safe territory, quoting political chronicler Paul Kelly on Fraser’s contribution in government:

Fraser was a very good prime minister, much better than people would have suspected in 1975. He ran a government of above average competence by Australian standards with acumen, dedication and professionalism.

On the more thorny question of the former PM’s contribution to political life after government, PM Abbott could only bring himself to note, “In a long and active retirement, he maintained a keen interest in our country’s direction.”

And so, typically, we must revert to the once-great Liberal Party moderates to hear tributes befitting the man.

Fraser government minister Fred Chaney said the former PM’s death had caused the nation to lose “one of its great moral compasses”, while Georgiou noted “he brought into the centre of our life that we were a diverse society and that diversity should be respected”.

It’s no coincidence both Chaney and Georgiou retired as Liberal MPs when they could no longer endure representing a party that refused to accommodate the mix of social progressivism and economic conservatism that Fraser and they believed in.

The death of Malcolm Fraser is a poignant reminder of a time when it was not considered weak or permissive to be a progressive in the Liberal Party; a time when a Liberal politician and a government could be economically as well as socially responsible.

Such a combination should not be a relic of the past to be wistfully remembered, but a feature of today’s politics. The sadness of Fraser’s death is magnified by his loss as a role model for modern Liberal progressives.