“The moment Dutton stood up to run for the leadership, we lost the election,” according to one Liberal MP.
Of course, the MP is a party moderate, a supporter of beleaguered Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and implacably opposed to this week’s rampant insurgency of former home affairs minister Peter Dutton.
However, the comment underlines the desperation behind the leadership turmoil engulfing the Liberal Party in Canberra.
It also prompts a wider question: if there is no substantial evidence that a Liberal Party led by Peter Dutton will improve the Coalition’s chances at the next election, why the helter-skelter frenzy to dump Turnbull?
One answer often proffered by party conservatives is that Turnbull, a one-time leader of the Republic cause, and the man who successfully steered the same-sex marriage issue through the shoals of a postal vote and parliamentary legislation, just isn’t a Liberal, or “one of us”, as former UK Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher used to put it.
These views are encouraged by reports of earlier Turnbull dalliances with the ALP, and were recently fanned by a claim by former Labor senator Graham Richardson in a column published in The Australian that Turnbull had once asked Richardson to secure a place for him as a Labor senator from NSW.
On this vexed issue, I believe a more significant discussion occurred prior to the Turnbull-Richardson meeting when former NSW Labor premier Neville Wran, who was close to the Turnbull family, approached then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating about Turnbull’s possible future as a Labor politician. Keating, in turn, referred the matter to the NSW ALP, and the Richardson meeting ensued.
A possible position for Turnbull on Labor’s NSW Senate ticket was discussed at that meeting, but the issue of Turnbull becoming a Labor politician did not, for whatever reason, progress beyond that.
On the other side of that ‘true blue Liberal’ coin, the question can also be asked: how much of a mainstream member of the party of pragmatism is Tony Abbott, the former Catholic trainee priest who was an enthusiastic foot soldier for the head of the National Civic Council and architect of the now defunct DLP, Bob Santamaria, in the late 70s.
Abbott is now an enthusiastic supporter of Peter Dutton’s leadership push, and the man who set about wreaking vengeance on Turnbull after he lost the prime ministership to the former corporate lawyer and investment banker – and onetime business partner to Neville Wran – in a party room vote on September 14, 2015.
As events unfold with astonishing speed in Canberra, it looks like Abbott, one of the most effective political street fighters in Australian history, may yet have his way.
But Abbott’s remorseless anti-Turnbull campaign and the contrasting profiles of these two implacable enemies in the same political party still does not explain how the 10 or so Liberal MPs who argued against Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee (NEG) policy at a Liberal party room meeting on Tuesday ,August 14, dramatically ballooned out to 35 MPs who voted against his leadership at the same regular party room meeting a week later.
If it wasn’t because they were confident that with Dutton they had a better chance of winning, and the moderate-conservative policy differences have proved to be more of a fig leaf in this power struggle than some sort of sword of conviction, then what is this all about?
The question is being asked by thousands of Liberal Party supporters this week. The inboxes of both Dutton and Turnbull-aligned Liberal MPs are full of querulous emails from Liberal Party branch members demanding to know what is going on and why.
It’s a fair question because even a superficial reading of the Liberal Party’s 74-year history will point to it being, above all, the party of government.
As is pointed out ad infinitum, the Liberal Party has its moderate and conservative wings. It proclaims itself to be the party of the broad church. It is therefore the role of any successful Liberal leader to reconcile the interests and aspirations of both groups and mould them into a cohesive policy form designed, above all, to appeal to a majority of Australians.
Since its formation by Robert Menzies in 1944, the Liberal Party has had a mixed record in state politics, but in the federal sphere it has enjoyed lengthy periods of success, and has been the senior partner in Coalition governments for 42 of those 74 years.
Menzies himself won a record seven elections in a row, and the Liberal Party held power in Canberra for an uninterrupted 23 years between 1949-1972.
During the Turnbull-Abbott wars, antagonists invoke this or that Menzies quote or action to support their cause. The truth is he was a right-of-centre political pragmatist, someone who could draw on policy and tactical approaches from all sides of his Liberal Party, and unify those groups behind his approach.
Menzies in fact probably came closest to announcing a Liberal Party philosophy two years before the party was formed in his series of “Forgotten People” radio broadcasts at the height of World War Two in 1942.
He said then: “I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race.
“The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.”
Menzies would look on aghast at this week’s events where the Liberal Party seems to be hell-bent on destroying its own home.
To be fair, it has had some ugly internecine wars in the past. During John Gorton’s tumultuous three years as Liberal prime minister there was regular speculation about leadership tensions, with many Liberals claiming Gorton was erratic and too centralist during a time when ‘states rights’ was a regular conservative clarion call.
This tension boiled over in the early months of 1971, and William McMahon, one of Menzies’ “49ers”, and a one-time Treasurer, defeated Gorton in a narrow party room vote.
After the Malcolm Fraser-led Liberal government was defeated in the 1983 election, prolonged leadership tensions between Victorian Andrew Peacock and John Howard helped to keep Labor in office for a record 13 years. Peacock served as Opposition leader from 1983-5, Howard defeated him in a party-room vote and held the post until 1989, when Peacock returned, only to suffer a narrow loss in the 1990 federal election.
The leadership issue bedevilled the Liberal Party once again after John Hewson lost the “unlosable” March 1993 election. As Hewson’s position deteriorated in 1994, then party president Tony Staley said a leader could command support from party members but not demand it. Similar words were employed by Turnbull’s nemesis, Tony Abbott, and directed at an under-siege Prime Minister during Tuesday’s leadership contest.
However, none of these earlier party-room boilovers can compare with the ferocity, hostility and sheer mayhem now on display in Canberra. As this article is going to press, speculation is intensifying that another meeting of the Parliamentary Liberal Party will be called as early as Thursday.
If Queenslander Peter Dutton is the victor, he will be leading the pragmatists’ party as a not-that-well-known former policeman who has held the powerful Home Affairs portfolio since last year. Dutton has already pledged a populist motley of ideas which hardly constitute a program. They include holding a royal commission into the power industry, cutting the rate of immigration, and taking the GST element out of consumers’ power bills – in effect, reducing them by 10 per cent.
His innate conservatism and more traditionally Australian approach will also likely change the conversation over the future of the so-called “multicultural Australia”. Dutton will appeal to those Australians who do not regard themselves as innately racist, but who feel uncomfortable about the rapid change in the face of their nation, largely due to the high migration rate.
Like Menzies, Peter Dutton will be pushing for an Australian home that is comfortable and familiar.