Actions And Consequences: NSW Liberals Could Destroy The Party

THE APPARENT PUSH by so-called Liberal moderates in NSW to engage in a wholesale purge of conservative MPs before this year’s election could destroy the Liberal Party; it stinks of a desperate, opportunistic attempt to shore up a leader whose support lacks depth across the national rank-and-file. A parade of conservative casualties in a party whose membership leans more Right than Centre could set off a reaction that shatters it as a viable force.

If there’s one line I have heard more than any other during membership of the Liberal Party spanning more than 25 years, it’s that “the Liberal Party is not a conservative party:” it’s a line that is only ever offered up by members of its so-called “moderate,” small-l liberal (or “wet”) faction, and whilst there is an argument the party was more centrist in its early decades than it is today (despite its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, being a conservative in everything but name), that argument ignores the fact that Australian society as a whole has shifted to the right in the past 30 years — and so, quite decisively, has the Liberal Party itself.

Plenty of extra material for readers’ perusal today, which curiously enough comes from the Murdoch press — see here, here, here, and The Australian‘s editorialisation early in the week of the problem at hand here — about the endgame in an aggregation of events, both historical and most recent, that have conspired to see an apparently orchestrated move by moderates in the NSW division of the party to seize upon an electoral redistribution of lower house electorates in that state as a pretext to get rid of sitting MPs from the conservative wing of the party that tellingly extends to both Senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Without being melodramatic about it, I think that if the moderates succeed in administering the boot to at least half a dozen incumbent MPs, the reverberations could well prove the catalyst for a split that taken to its logical conclusion could see the existing Liberal Party rendered irrelevant in the shadow of a broad-based and truly conservative party, and whilst I identify as a conservative Liberal and have no enthusiasm whatsoever for Malcolm Turnbull as the leader of the party, the last thing I want to see is the party ripped to pieces by the deluded, cynical and it must be said outrageous ambitions of a few finger-in-the-wind glory seekers north of the Murray River.

Yet this is a situation born of truly labyrinthine origins, and as much as the finger needs to be pointed at the moderates for creating the potential for disunity and ructions ahead of an election that just a few months appeared certain to bring defeat, the Right must shoulder some of the blame for allowing it to eventuate at all.

20 years ago, Australia stood on the cusp of electing a shiny new Coalition government after 13 years of ALP rule; back in 1996, the standard bearers of the Liberal Right formed a formidable list from an impressively diverse range of backgrounds. John Howard. Peter Costello. Peter Reith. Alexander Downer. David Kemp. Nick Minchin. The list went on: forming the heart and soul of the Howard government, real intellectual and political finesse devolved from this nucleus, underwriting in large part the success of what I believe has been the best government in Australia’s history over 12 years.

Today, after almost three years in government, the list of the Right’s leaders looks rather different. Tony Abbott. Andrew Robb. Eric Abetz. Kevin Andrews. Peter Dutton. Bronwyn Bishop. Some would add the fair-weather friends George Brandis and Christopher Pyne, who have shown more loyalty in recent years to likely winners of leadership votes than to any consistent philosophical underpinnings. With the clear exception of Robb (and perhaps Abbott, before he allowed the idiots he surrounded himself with to permanently infect his government with incompetence on every level), none of them has covered themselves in any glory. Most have brought embarrassment to the Liberal Party. And once again, with the exception of Robb, none of them are worthy of an additional term in safe parliamentary seats based on either merit or on the (dubious) calibre of their performances, jointly and severally, in office.

Not all of those names, of course, are from NSW, and not all of those NSW MPs facing preselection challenges from moderate forces could be said to include “leading lights” of the conservative faction (the list includes Senator Bill Heffernan, for goodness’ sake). But the allusion goes to a point I have repeatedly argued in this column, namely that the conservative group in the party has failed to identify, groom, and preselect a generation of “tomorrow’s leaders” to comprehensively replace those who engineered the successes of the Howard era.

And whilst the finger is being pointed in the direction of the Liberal Right, it bears remembering what those torch bearers of the Liberal conservative wing did with the election victory they secured in September 2013: I have copped a lot of flak for the article published in this column a fortnight ago, in which I argued that the Abbott government dishonoured the conservative cause in Australia.

Coupled with the diminished calibre of Right-leaning Liberal MPs that has evolved over the past ten years or so, the failures of the Abbott government invited some kind of boilover from the moderate wing that transcended merely tipping Abbott off the cart and getting rid of some of his trustiest cronies. I stand by that article, and I point out to those fellow conservatives still in the party that however painful it might be, some honesty and a grounding in fact are critical if any evaluation of why Abbott failed is to be worth a pinch of the proverbial. I didn’t support Malcolm Turnbull, and had a decent candidate emerged from the Right as a replacement for Abbott I would have backed whoever it was against Turnbull. The point is that Malcolm is now Prime Minister: and in the context of today’s discussion, that reality only feeds into the febrile climate just waiting on a spark to ignite an explosion.

Really, on the conservative wing of the Liberal Party, there are three groups of people: one, those who have noisily stomped out of the party in disgust or who remain in the fold purely to cause trouble, and who are sniping at Turnbull from the sidelines and/or taking up with imbeciles who believe Abbott’s departure opened up opportunities for personal glorification they could disguise as expressing fidelity with the conservative cause.

These people are no loss to the Liberal Party and most — not all, most — would be of little value to any other mass-based political party, conservative or otherwise. These are the people for whom nothing less than the destruction of the Coalition will suffice (Bill Shorten, unbelievably, being preferable to them as Prime Minister than Malcolm) and who spend time on Twitter claiming to be planning “something big” to “get their elected Prime Minister back” in a popular uprising they cannot be told has insufficient public support to make it worth bothering.

Spare us all, and let’s move on.

Two, those who take the pragmatic view that Malcolm won’t be around forever; that his historic flaws and shortcomings will quickly resurface, and that he will prove over time to be a poor Prime Minister; and who accept a longer-term view that his presence merely allows the opportunity for conservatives to quickly identify succession planning and reinvigorate their parliamentary representation by moving on longstanding and/or ineffectual MPs from the Right.

And three, those who take the apposite pragmatic view that Malcolm offers electoral victory where Abbott had, by dint of his own stupidity and that of those hand-picked fools around him, condemned himself to certain defeat, and who believe that a Coalition government led by an undesirable figurehead is preferable under any and all circumstances to a return to Labor — and to a Labor Party “led” by an insidious specimen like Shorten to boot.

My personal position is probably an amalgam of options #2 and #3.

But with all that said, on the moderate wing of the party in NSW — emboldened by the ascension of one of their brethren to the Liberal leadership for the first time since Andrew Peacock in 1989 — the big push seems to be on to get rid of a swathe of long-serving conservatives, plus one of their own in Philip Ruddock, whose 43-year career in the House of Representatives should, on any measure, come to an end: Ruddock isn’t a face of the future, and isn’t going to return to the ministry now, and safe seats with 20% margins should be used to find and draft the ministers and leaders of tomorrow — however much a hero the incumbent might be.

Yet looking around what is happening in NSW, there isn’t so much common sense being shown as that.

I have opined that Tony Abbott should quit Parliament (and he should) but strangely enough, he’s being left unchallenged in Warringah: based on the way his government played out and the prohibitive opportunity costs of making any attempt to further harness his skills, there is as little justification for him to remain as there is for Ruddock.

And this is where it gets complicated, for as difficult as it is insuperable, the propensity for Abbott’s ongoing presence to galvanise the aggrieved and more shortsightedly reckless elements in the Liberal Right does in fact need to be excised: just as aged 30-year veteran and undisputed political liability Bronwyn Bishop must be removed, and just as the laudable but 70-something Ruddock must also go.

These are three very, very safe seats there that can all be used to bring fresh talent to the NSW Liberals’ federal ranks; it is an indictment on the NSW Right (and a perfect illustration of part of the central point) that in all three cases it has failed to have clear replacements ready and the numbers to assure their preselections guaranteed.

But the moderate faction isn’t content with just clearing out deadwood and people past their prime, and the redistribution of federal boundaries in NSW appears to have been seized upon merely as a pretext to wreak as much havoc as politically possible — with scant regard for the consequences.

Make no mistake, if it all goes pear-shaped, these goings-on have the potential to slice the Liberal Party down the middle.

On one level, the push by moderates to dispense with as many Right-aligned MPs as it can is understandable; the Liberal Party leadership has been controlled by the Right for decades. Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension must seem better than Christmas for these people, and not just because of the poll boost he has, for now, delivered.

But a simple fact that is barely disputed, and indeed tacitly acknowledged on all sides of the party, is that the Liberals’ grass roots membership is far more philosophically conservative than Turnbull, and its residual inclinations more in the Howard/Abbott mould — even if Abbott made a botch of it.

During the week, Turnbull intervened to provide support for all six MPs in the gun and facing challenges from moderate-aligned forces — Ruddock, Bishop, Angus Taylor in Hume, Heffernan, his Senate colleague Connie Fierravanti-Wells, and Hughes MP Craig Kelly — and it is telling that in spite of this move, the machinations against the six continue apace.

This early indication of the true limits of Turnbull’s authority over his own party — and an inability to control what, nominally at least, are his stablemates in the moderate faction — will be ignored to the enduring detriment of the party, and should send a shiver down the spine of any Liberal around the country who remains inclined to see the Coalition stay in power in the medium to long term, irrespective of their position on the moderate/conservative spectrum or their disposition toward Turnbull as leader.

As recently as Thursday, a deal was said to be on the table to save Taylor — facing preselection challenge from moderate-backed MP Russell Matheson, whose electorate of Macarthur has been made highly marginal as the redistribution moved half his voters (and many of his branches) into Taylor’s seat — and Fierravanti-Wells, and reported as likely to hold.

The National Party has already said it would offer Taylor preselection in Hume if Matheson were to obtain endorsement for the seat; Taylor is keeping his powder dry publicly, of course, and the Nationals are salivating at getting their hands on a candidate that good: with more experience, and discounting the present stoush over who contests which seat, Taylor will be a senior Coalition leader one day, and perhaps even a Liberal leader.

But Matheson seems more interested in simply having a safe seat than in retaining his existing (redrawn) electorate, and just as Taylor seems a lock on a senior role in the not-so-distant future, Matheson has proven an excellent marginal seat campaigner. For Taylor to be deselected (and especially if he were to jump ship to the Nationals) would potentially cost the Liberals both. It is incredibly shortsighted, to say nothing of downright dumb.

But Kelly, in Hughes, seems to be the true potential trigger point for a split.

Unlike Taylor, Kelly faces a challenge not from an MP who has a case (of sorts) that part of his electorate has been redistributed away, but from a moderate, an ALP turncoat at that, who isn’t even in Parliament; the move against Kelly in Hughes appears to be one of those things the moderates in NSW are hellbent on doing just because they can — often the worst reason for doing anything — and despite Turnbull’s intervention and the swirling attempts to otherwise do deals to protect sitting MPs, the challenge from party vice-president Kent Johns appears to be very much a certainty.

Like Taylor in Hughes, it also seems certain to succeed if it goes ahead.

Like Taylor, Kelly is keeping mum about whether he would stand as either an Independent or as a National if disendorsed as a Liberal, but as The Australian reports today, dumping him has the potential to split the Liberal Party statewide in NSW: and as is the way of these things, such a rupture would be impossible to contain between the Tweed and Murray Rivers.

It’s an imperfect parallel, of course, but the lunatic putsch in 1987 by Queensland Nationals to somehow install Joh Bjelke-Petersen as Prime Minister that year — despite never getting very far outside Queensland — managed to derail the federal Coalition’s bid to win an election that was arguably there for the taking; the contagion from that event cruelled the ability of Liberals to win enough votes in enough marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne to provide the impetus for victory, and cost them seats in Queensland, even though the Nationals’ vote held up across the country and the Coalition outpolled the ALP on primary votes.

In some respects, the tinder box in NSW represents a far graver threat to the Liberal Party than Bjelke-Petersen did 30 years ago; unlike the former Queensland Premier, none of the protagonists from the moderate faction are perceptibly mired in a delusional geriatric haze. They know what they are doing.

All of this could come to nothing, of course, and aside from dispatching Ruddock and/or Bishop — Abbott, it seems, is likely to stay where he is — the sitting MPs in the gun could emerge chastened, but with their endorsements intact.

But for a man who rightly elicited ridicule when he asserted that “factions do not control the Liberal Party” three months ago, Malcolm Turnbull has mates who could inflict far more grievous harm on the party than just knocking off a few factional adversaries at the preselection table.

And the problem with playing Russian roulette, as the NSW moderates appear determined to do with the wider interests of the Liberal Party by their behaviour, is the fact it’s impossible to know which squeeze of the trigger will inflict a fatal shot.

We have already seen an ominous portent of this behaviour in North Sydney — Joe Hockey’s old seat — at Turnbull’s first electoral test: after a preselection brawl that saw a candidate on the party’s far moderate left emerge, heavy by-election swings against the Liberals were recorded on primary votes and after preferences notwithstanding the candidate, Trent Zimmerman, being elected: this without an ALP candidate, in one of the party’s safest Sydney seats, and in the supposed blush of Turnbull’s “honeymoon” and the burst of support it was said to have generated.

If the mischief the moderate NSW Liberals are engaging in does in fact fire the bullet at the wrong target, the consequences could be dire: and by dire, I mean the effects of the fatal shot could ricochet across Australia, crippling the Liberal Party nationally, and conceivably terminating its relevance as an electoral force.

Such a self-inflicted blow could make anything Bjelke-Petersen managed to inflict look like child’s play.

Long-term readers will have heard me say many times that I believe the Australian electorate, distilled to a basic level, wants a choice between a genuine conservative party and a genuinely social democratic party: it’s a potential realignment that hasn’t gone away in recent years. Events like the embarrassing revelations of the Trade Union Royal Commission for the ALP,  the emergence of a socially left-leaning Prime Minister on the Liberal side of politics, and a consequent enraged core of conservative grassroots Liberal Party members — combined with a National Party ally that is ambivalent at best about Turnbull — all contrive to bring it nearer.

I’m not definitively saying it will happen, but an amalgamation of the Liberal Right, the National Party, less extreme conservative outposts like Family First, and even a reaching out to the likes of Katter forces — with conservative policies that at least cater to regional interests, if not capitulating to their outdated dreams of a return to a protectionist past — could, if an emphasis on developing a truly national, mainstream conservative agenda was pursued with the explicit aim of bringing mass popular support in behind it — leave the rump moderate Liberals with nowhere else to turn except the unpalatable choices of the ALP or the crossbenches.

Yes, such suggestions are hypothetical, and hypotheticals are just that.

But the ambit clearing out of factional rivals in NSW — just because they can — in the face of the fact that whatever internal power the moderates may temporarily wield, the broader party and a majority of the electorate remains a step further to the Right, is an exercise that could quite conceivably unleash consequences none of the key players on the moderate side appear to have thought through sufficiently, if they even care about them at all.

Any war can start with a single, isolated event. In 1914 it was a political assassination in Serbia. In 1939 it was the issue of an Allied ultimatum that was ignored by Germany. As I said at the outset, there is no desire to be unduly melodramatic, but in terms of the medium-term future of the Liberal Party, the NSW moderates are playing with fire.

It may be that the NSW moderates collect all of the scalps they seek; that the House of Representative MPs and Senators they are stalking are jettisoned; and that within their own NSW dunghill at least, the trendy wet Liberals emerge all-powerful — for now at least.

Yet just as the wets in NSW might win a series of battles during the current round of preselections, the wider war for the heart and soul of the non-Labor side of Australian politics remains very much unresolved.

Their antics, and their list of targets on the Right, stink of a push to shore up a leader in Turnbull whose support within the ranks of the Liberals’ membership is very thin indeed; Turnbull might be travelling well in the polls for now, and this may well embolden his followers. But once the political tide turns — or once Turnbull reverts to form, and begins making the sort of mistakes that cost him his leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009 in the first place — the justification for what they are up to will evaporate.

Now is a time for sober, reasonable, and prudent action in the NSW Liberal Party, not the reckless pursuit of factional adversaries and the settling of long-dead scores.

Regrettably, it seems the latter it the higher imperative. It remains to be seen where the pieces fall as a result of the mad free-for-all the moderates are determined to pursue, and at exactly what cost.

As the poet John Dryden observed, even victors, are by victories, undone: and today’s expedient, self-gratifying hatchet job by the NSW moderates could tomorrow sound their death knell.