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Turnbull is starting to push his progressive hand

Malcolm Turnbull has begun to test the nerve of his party’s hard right by speaking out on issues such as public transport, same-sex marriage and budget measures. And he’s already facing some resistance.

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

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.