Pyne’s hubris fans Liberals’ factional fights
by Peter Westmore
As Federal Parliament enters the winter recess, the future of the Turnbull Government is looking precarious, with the leadership of the party divided, the Opposition looking increasingly confident, and the long-awaited upturn in the opinion polls as distant as ever.
In the week after securing its education funding package through Parliament and the passage of other budget measures, the Liberals faced headlines triggered by a speech given by Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, in which he lashed out at both existing party policy on marriage, and the former Abbott government (of which he was a senior member).
Pyne made the extraordinary boast that the Liberal “wets” would soon deliver a parliamentary majority for “gay marriage”, igniting tensions in the Liberal Party, and deeply undermining the position of the party leader, Malcolm Turnbull.
Amid rising concerns about the future of his leadership, Turnbull upped the ante by declaring that he would leave Parliament when he ceased to be Prime Minister. As the Coalition has a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives, he is effectively threatening to bring the Government down if he is replaced.
Pyne’s speech to selected Liberal Party supporters was made at the time of a recent Liberal Party Federal Council meeting in Sydney. He was recorded as telling them: “Friends, we are in the winner’s circle but we have to deliver a couple of things and one of those we’ve got to deliver before too long is marriage equality in this country.
“We’re going to get it [same-sex ‘marriage’]. I think it might even be sooner than everyone thinks. And your friends in Canberra are working on that outcome.”
It then emerged that two openly gay Liberal parliamentarians, Dean Smith from WA and Trent Zimmerman from NSW, have been drafting a bill for same-sex marriage, in defiance of the long-standing policy of the Liberal Party for a referendum.
In his speech, Pyne also said that he and the Federal Attorney-General George Brandis had voted for Malcolm Turnbull in every leadership contest. “George and I kept the faith,” he added, indicating that he had never supported Tony Abbott as prime minister.
What made Pyne’s remarks particularly significant is that he is Leader of the House, and is responsible for government business in the House of Representatives. If he were to co-operate with dissident Liberals and the ALP, he could secure a suspension of standing orders to put a private member’s bill on same-sex marriage through the House.
Of course, it would fatally undermine Malcolm Turnbull’s diminishing authority.
There were immediate calls for Pyne’s removal from this position, and he apologised for his comments. Malcolm Turnbull was forced to reiterate that there was no plan for a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage, but he left Pyne, one of his strongest allies, in position.
Christopher Pyne got more unwelcome publicity when he publicly characterised Catholic school authorities as “dishonest” after they criticised the Gonski 2.0 funding formula for schools.
Former cabinet members Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz criticised Pyne’s remarks, as did former West Australian Liberal president Bill Hassell, who told The Australian that he was aghast at them. Hassell said: “In all my years involved in politics I never, ever experienced the Catholic education authorities, or saw them, as dishonest.
“It’s been an article of faith since the days of Menzies that we look after the independent schools – Catholic and non-Catholic – in a fair way. Why would you pick a fight with your own people? Why would you make these comments?
“Funnily enough, the Catholic education authorities are worried about education,” he concluded.
The divisions in the parliamentary Liberal Party come at a time when the polls are indicating that the Government faces wipeout at the next federal election.
Additionally, they fuel tensions inside the NSW branch of the Liberal Party, where differences between the head office-based “wets” and conservatives are boiling over, with a rebellion over the control of party preselections by head office.
In a separate move, former prime minister Tony Abbott gave a speech to the Institute of Public Affairs at which he set down an alternative agenda for government, with radically contrasting policies from Turnbull’s with regard to renewable energy, reversing the closure of coal-fired power stations, scaling back immigration, freezing government spending, and seeking senate reform.
While Abbott has been accused of sabotaging his successor and planning a comeback, Abbott is aware that there are major issues facing the nation and the economy that are not being addressed. Rather, he is reflecting on the deep dismay felt by many Liberals, and is trying to steer the ship of state back into safe waters. But neither the party’s leaders nor the media are listening.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.
Labor-lite won’t satisfy Liberals’ discontents
by NW Contributor
The Liberal Party is experiencing a deep winter of discontent amid bitter infighting reminiscent of the Howard-Peacock period in the opposition wilderness.
The question is whether the latest acrimony sparked by Christopher Pyne’s boastful speech that the “progressive” wing of the party had finally triumphed over its conservative adversaries, is merely a violent reaction to Pyne’s ill-disciplined triumphalism, or whether it is a sign that the party of Menzies is fracturing beyond repair.
Much of the media commentary since the Pyne late-night speech to a gathering of like-minded left-wing Liberals that included Attorney-General George Brandis, in which Mr Pyne declared that both he and Senator Brandis had never voted for anyone other that Malcolm Turnbull, misunderstands the nature of the Liberal Party.
(Incidentally, the comments infuriated Tony Abbott because it confirmed publicly that his cabinet colleagues had been treacherous.)
However, it also laid bare the divisions in the party.
It is true that the Parliamentary Liberal Party is a broad church that includes conservative MPs and those who have liberal viewpoints, but organised factions are anathema to the party. The more important point, though, is that Liberal Party base, which consists predominantly of small business people, professionals and the self-employed, is definitely dominated by conservatives.
It is this group that has become increasingly disillusioned by a series of Coalition Government decisions on taxation and superannuation, climate change policy, education, government spending, and cultural issues, as well as the decision to cut down Tony Abbott in his first term as prime minister.
Many of these people have abandoned the Liberal Party altogether and parked their vote with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation or, as the next election may well confirm, with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives.
It is a problem that Prime Minister Turnbull is either willfully or actually blind to, and the chief reason why the Coalition cannot “lift” in the polls. Many of its most rusted-on Liberals have abandoned the party they voted for.
It is also the reason, incidentally, why in the lead-up to the challenge against Mr Abbott, Mr Turnbull’s vote was always soft.
Mr Turnbull was more popular than Mr Abbott, but his support was boosted by Labor voters who were never in the end going to vote for him!
Mr Turnbull has made two strategic decisions that are creating his current predicament.
First, he has made a deliberate decision to capture what he believes is the middle ground of Australian politics, including stealing Labor’s education policy clothes and trying to find a compromise on climate change.
The idea is that Labor will be forced to move further to the left or be seen to be irrelevant.
However, Labor calls these Turnbull policy manoeuvres “Labor-lite”, and the description is unfortunately sticky.
The obvious next step, if you are getting Labor-lite from the Liberals, is, why not go for the real thing?
The second thing Mr Turnbull has done is to freeze out his conservative enemies, notably Mr Abbott, and former cabinet ministers Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz. That has been a mistake, but one that is not too late to rectify.
Having Mr Abbott inside the cabinet in a busy portfolio and contributing to the re-election of the Government is preferable to having the most formidable politician of his generation at a complete loose end and free to make speeches and speak his mind on policy issues from the backbench.
For his part Mr Abbott has signaled on more than one occasion that being included is what he would like.
Instead, Mr Abbott is ignored or, as in the case of Mr Pyne and his recent speech, goaded into responding in kind.
It is not too late to fix the situation, although it is unclear how Mr Abbott would now respond to being invited back into the tent so late in the piece.
For the average conservative supporter, who placed his or her trust in the Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott, the past year has severely tested their loyalty.
Conservatives, especially social conservatives, fear the election of a Labor government, which will certainly usher in same-sex marriage and probably the persecution of anyone who has a traditional understanding of marriage.
Economically and socially Labor would likely to be disastrous; and there is every prospect that it would embark on a tax-and-spend spree that would irreparably damage the wealth creators of the nation.
Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Party needs to heed the warning signs now or pay the price.