Fighting on two fronts

22 Jan 2009

THE NEW YEAR sees Malcolm Turnbull and the opposition fighting amongst themselves on two fronts. These are unnecessary distractions for the Coalition. The federal Labor Party, despite its factions, seems to be stable and concentrating on the job.

The fight that is receiving more publicity involves relations between the Liberals and the Nationals, or more particularly between Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce, leader of the Nationals in the Senate. Joyce has always been a publicity magnet. At the moment he is in the news for two reasons. One is whether or not he will try to move from the Senate to the House of Representatives and become Nationals leader. The suggestion that he try to win the NSW seat of New England has hit a snag as even his parents, who live in the electorate, admit that they vote for Tony Windsor, the incumbent independent.

The bigger issue revolves around Joyce’s dismissive comments about climate change and his determination to vote against the Rudd Government’s very moderate carbon trading scheme. This might split the Coalition as Turnbull will find it hard not to back the Government’s scheme.

The second front features the spirited public debates within the Liberals themselves over their future direction and over their place on the political spectrum. These debates have been remarkably public and have involved both senior members of the shadow ministry like Christopher Pyne and Senator Nick Minchin and activists close to the party like Brendan Nelson’s former adviser Tom Switzer and a columnist with the Australian newspaper, Janet Albrechtsen.

Attitudes towards climate change and the environment have been part of this dispute, but so too have internal issues like the role of women within the party. Lurking behind these debates are personality differences between leaders and their followers. The Liberal Party has always been a mix of liberals and conservatives held together by anti-socialism. And no party can go through defeats and leadership changes without regrets and lingering animosities.

One of the first to start the ball rolling was Christopher Pyne, promoted by Turnbull to the shadow portfolio of education, apprenticeships and training, after being left languishing by both John Howard (for a long time) and then Brendan Nelson, despite being a candidate for the deputy leadership after the 2007 election. His speech towards the end of last year to the Sydney Institute called “Looking Back from Opposition” has just been reproduced by the institute in its quarterly magazine.

Pyne calls for Liberal leadership in accepting and addressing the reality of climate change and refers - undoubtedly provocatively to some conservatives within the party - to a new generation of Liberals that can meet the challenge. He wants the party to “tack towards the centre” of the political spectrum. Albrechtsen has condemned the suggestion by Ainslie van Onselen, wife of the Western Australian analyst of the Liberal Party, Peter van Onselen, that the current dearth of women parliamentarians in the party across Australia means that the Liberals should look again at introducing quotas for women. Switzer, now a research fellow at the conservative Institute of Public Affairs, rejects the view that the Liberal Party should move leftwards towards the political centre.

He reckons that the Australian electorate remains conservative and, what’s more, that the Rudd government won office because it, too, has taken a conservative position and moved rightwards. Accordingly, it would be an error for the Liberals to move in a progressive direction.

Interestingly, Switzer quotes approvingly Peter Costello’s recent argument that “the Liberals are the guardian of the centre-right tradition in Australia.” This is surely stirring the pot within the party coming only months after Nelson’s departure and with Costello’s longer term future still cloudy.

Pyne might be philosophical about being taken on by Switzer but to be taken to task publicly by his own Senate leader, Nick Minchin, is surely another step up. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald Minchin pulled no punches. Pyne, he said, was actually “advocating a significant move to the left, rather than to the centre.” It could not be seen otherwise for Minchin because in his eyes the Howard government occupied the centre, not the centre-right.

Minchin makes the remarkable claim that Pyne “appears to want the Liberal Party to become a greens party, which is not consistent with the history and philosophy, nor with its support base, and is not a particularly sensible recipe for returning to government.” These are fighting words. Why would Minchin bother unless the target was as much the Liberals’ direction under Turnbull as it was Pyne’s opinions.

These internal Liberal debates might seem to some outsiders to be like arguments between theologians about how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. But whether the Liberals are a centre or centre-right party does matter, and hides much bigger concerns about the durability of the Howard legacy and the politics surrounding Turnbulls leadership.

This makes this internal Liberal struggle ultimately of greater long-term importance that anything Joyce and the Nationals might choose to do. Joyce provides more public sparks than Minchin, but ultimately the potential for a bushfire is smouldering within the Liberal Party.

There is just one caveat. Joyce can become dangerous for Turnbull if and when he becomes either a lightning-rod or a mouthpiece for conservative Liberals. His dismissive attitudes towards climate change might encourage some Liberal senators to break ranks with party policy. If Joyce links his small band of Nationals with an equally small Liberal rump then it will start to undermine Turnbull and his environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt.

John Warhurst is an adjunct professor of political science in the school of social sciences at the Australian National University. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times.

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