Simply denying factionalism exists won’t help Turnbull

By trying to insist the Liberal Party doesn’t have factionalism, Malcolm Turnbull showed a lack of judgement and a serious lack of self-awareness. He will need to tailor his language in the future.

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.