As John Howard said, elections are won and lost in the centre.
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.
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.
Will the Liberal Party under Malcolm Turnbull really be more progressive? The recorded views of cabinet ministers may speak for themselves.
Having won the face-off with Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister-designate Malcolm Turnbull now has two more pressing tests to deal with.
Malcolm Fraser is a divisive figure, but there is one thing most would agree with – his own party took a sharp right turn after his time as PM and hasn’t looked back.
Having seen off internal critics this morning by garnering enough votes to defeat the spill motion, Prime Minister Tony Abbott must now deal with the ramifications of the vote itself.
With 39 out of 101 votes tallied in favour of the spill, the PM must now confront what is essentially a vote of no confidence by 40 per cent of his colleagues. In reality this number is likely higher, if one was to count disgruntled ministers who nevertheless supported the PM after being pressured to uphold the principle of ministerial solidarity.
Abbott and his supporters may claim today’s vote puts an end to the matter, but they will be keenly aware that it has sometimes taken more than one attempt to bring down a sitting PM.
Even the formidable Paul Keating was unable to dislodge Australia’s once-most popular PM Bob Hawke with a single shove, and for a time languished in despair after the first strike before regrouping for the second and ultimately successful attempt.
More recently, it took Kevin Rudd two attempts to bring down his successor, PM Julia Gillard, or three attempts if one also counts the aborted attempt forced by the political suicide bomber Simon Crean, at which time Rudd declined to be a candidate.
The chances of second attempt against Abbott’s leadership will remain high as long as his approval ratings and support for the Government remain low.
Today’s Newspoll reinforced the enormity of that task, finding the Labor opposition had a 57-43 lead over the Government with preferences, and that 68 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with Abbott as PM. Only 24 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the Prime Minister, giving him the third lowest Newspoll approval rating ever for a PM.
In an attempt to insulate against any further poll-driven panic, considerable pressure has been brought to bear on Liberal MPs to give Abbott more time to turn things around, including an entreaty from former PM John Howard in today’s media. The PM’s supporters pointed to the concessions made in his address to the National Press Club last week as evidence of Abbott’s willingness and ability to change for the better.
It is true that Abbott took the paid parental leave scheme “off the table” and swore off choosing new knights and dames. He did promise to crack down on home-grown terrorism and bend the knee to party xenophobes anxious about foreigners buying up Australian property.
But at no point did the PM vow to abandon two of his biggest problems – the dysfunctional operation of his office, and his Government’s dogged pursuit of a reform agenda that singularly lacks in empathy. Without fixing his office, Abbott will continue to lack the confidence of many backbenchers. And without adjusting his Government’s policies, he’ll continue to be spurned by the Australian people.
This latter point may have not yet occurred – or perhaps is being diligently ignored – by members of Abbott’s ministry. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann encapsulated this problem on the weekend when he stated in a media interview that no member of the ministry had ever told him that last year’s budget was unfair. As the interviewer swiftly replied, that says a lot about their political antennae.
Today’s vote has undoubtedly winged the PM. He may well be given a chance to recover, with the option of putting him out of his misery later if that is necessary. But now there is blood in the water, an off-the-radar battle is taking place between the right-wing conservatives who want to protect the Government’s current agenda and the moderates who seek to change it.
This battle is also the reason there’s no clear alternative to Abbott in the leadership stakes. The conservatives have been grooming former immigration minister Scott Morrison as their Plan B, in the event that Abbott fell under a bus. But without experience in an economic portfolio, Morrison is not yet ready for the top job.
Meantime, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has played the long-game, managing to keep moderate voters onside despite his spruiking of the Coalition’s technologically sub-optimal broadband network and keeping schtum on climate change. Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop has the potential to be a compromise candidate, with Liberal voters preferring her over Turnbull, but is not (yet) considered competent enough by the right, who still have the numbers.
Accordingly, there will be no change to the Liberal leadership until the right accept the Government is electorally doomed under Abbott, and that some policy purity will have to surrendered to maintain a fighting chance at the next election.
While this subterranean battle escalates between the conservatives and the moderates in the Liberal Party, the PM and his supporters will attempt to draw a line under recent events as nothing more than an ill-judged dummy-spit by a unrepresentative minority.
However judging by the size of the anti-Abbott vote, and the PM’s track record in failing to live up to his word, the rebellion is far from over.