News

For the new prime minister, it’s time to keep his enemies close and the conservatives closer. By Sophie Morris.

Malcolm Turnbull versus the Coalition’s social conservatives

Conservative “survivor” Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

How times change. Just four years ago, Malcolm Turnbull provoked the ire of conservative Liberals when he spoke of the need to retain some moderates in the party, who could appeal to centrist voters.

Now the social conservatives in the party, who enjoyed patronage under Tony Abbott, are vocally warning Turnbull that if he ignores them, he will risk losing the party’s base.

They this week declared same-sex marriage a totemic issue, saying Turnbull must not budge from the approach outlined by Abbott and must not push to progress the issue before the next election.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the assistant minister for multicultural affairs, spoke at the National Press Club on Wednesday of how she was pleased to have survived what she said some had called a “purge of conservatives from ministerial ranks”.

It’s a description that others dispute, but for a frontbencher to deploy it shows the intensity of the acrimony that lingers.

Same-sex marriage was not a priority and should not be made into one, she said. Still, it was a significant theme of her speech. She argued that directly supporting same-sex marriage would risk marginal seats with significant migrant communities.

Later that day it emerged that Liberal MP Warren Entsch, a marriage-equality advocate, had talked to Turnbull about locking in changes to the Marriage Act this term that would only take effect if endorsed by a plebiscite, within 100 days after the election.

“I have said to him that I think we need to be looking at progressing this issue,” said Entsch.

To secure the leadership, Turnbull agreed to adopt the proposal Abbott outlined after a marathon party room meeting in August, for a post-election plebiscite or referendum on same-sex marriage, rather than his personal preference for a free vote this term. He’s sticking by this now, even as Labor warns it could cause divisive debates.

But the mechanics of this are yet to be resolved. Turnbull says cabinet will debate the options and the party room will also be consulted, but that majority support in a plebiscite would result in same-sex marriage being legislated.

“It is quite clear that every Australian will get a vote and that vote will be respected,” Turnbull told parliament. “If the vote is carried, it will become law.”

A conservative who did not survive the reshuffle, Eric Abetz, said Abbott’s position had been a plebiscite and a free vote post-election. This approach would leave questions about the point of the plebiscite and whether it would have even been binding. It was confirmation, if any was needed, that the former PM’s intention was to delay change as long as possible. 

Abetz criticised Entsch’s proposal. “It seems a bit of a thought bubble and an ambush to boot,” declared Abetz.

“It is not the actions, if I might say, that will help unity, which will help to heal some of the wounds of that which has happened over recent weeks … It is important that the conservative view of the party, which if I might say represents the overwhelming base of the party, is represented and listened to.”

These pleas are a counterpoint to Turnbull’s comments four years ago, when he outlined his recipe for electoral success, cautioning against focusing too closely on the conservative base.

“You win elections by persuading people who didn’t vote for you at the last election to vote for you. Elections are always won at the centre,” said Turnbull at the National Press Club in August 2011.

“The way you win elections is to get people who normally vote for the other side to vote for you.”

The comments triggered an angry response from influential right-winger Nick Minchin, who had at that time recently left the parliament. He had, of course, been instrumental in ending Turnbull’s yearlong stint as opposition leader in 2009 and felt that Turnbull was wrongly blaming conservatives for his demise.

Since Minchin has gone, there has been no one else quite like him who can appeal to the various subgroupings on the party’s right.

Under Abbott’s leadership, there was perhaps no need for the conservatives to regularly square off against the moderates. Some who had previously been considered prominent moderates – such as Christopher Pyne, George Brandis and Joe Hockey – had been incorporated into Abbott’s regime. If they pushed back against his views, it was only occasionally apparent.

Hockey’s valedictory speech this week gave a glimpse of the topics on which his views had diverged from Abbott’s but the former prime minister’s had prevailed: on the need, for instance, to pare back generous superannuation tax concessions and restrict negative gearing to new homes.

Other notable moderates, such as Judi Moylan, Mal Washer and Petro Georgiou, had simply left the parliament.

In the end, though, it was not an uprising of repressed moderates that ended Abbott’s leadership, but rather a fracturing of the right, such that some who were not Turnbull’s natural philosophical allies threw their support behind him.

For the oft-cited truism that a Liberal leader must balance the party’s two traditions, of conservatives and moderates, obscures the fact that neither is a completely cohesive group and that dozens of Liberal MPs don’t fit easily into either category.

Turnbull on notice

The fault lines were clear this week on same-sex marriage, as the social conservatives put Turnbull on notice.

It is difficult to judge the size of this group, who were closely aligned with Abbott and now fear they are on the outer.

Some suggest it’s the 30 MPs who backed Kevin Andrews’ unsuccessful bid for the deputy leadership, but others say it’s limited to the 19 or 20 MPs who were rumoured this week to have dined with Abbott, amid speculation he has not given up hope of a comeback.

Fierravanti-Wells spoke of a backlash from rank-and-file party members to the leadership change, stressing that the Liberal Party still needed these people to hand out how-to-vote cards.

“As the senior conservative from New South Wales, I have spent a lot of time talking to our base,” she said. 

“In NSW, it is well known the left control the division but the base is mostly conservative. Many are devastated by the change [in leaders]. Some have left and many have threatened to down tools.”

Even as Turnbull rides high in the polls, his internal critics are watching him closely for any missteps.

The tensions are real, but the narrative of a dichotomy between moderates and conservatives is also not the full story.

The reality is much more nuanced. Although Turnbull did shaft some of the old guard social conservatives, notably Abetz and Andrews, he has also promoted some up-and-comers from the party’s right. West Australians Christian Porter and Michaelia Cash fit this description, as well as economic right-wingers such as Victorians Mitch Fifield and Scott Ryan. Also, other conservatives, such as Mathias Cormann and Peter Dutton, kept their portfolios, even though they did not support Turnbull in the challenge.

Yet there are those on the party’s right who are eager to remind Turnbull that, as far as they are concerned, he’s still on his P-plates.

On the very day that a fresh Fairfax-Ipsos poll showed the Coalition had surged ahead of Labor, 53 to 47 on last election’s preference flows and with an even wider gap according to respondents’ current intentions, one Liberal backbencher issued a pointed reminder to Turnbull about how quickly leadership can collapse.

“Mr Turnbull lost the leadership by one vote on 1 December 2009,” West Australian senator Chris Back told reporters on his way into parliament on Monday. “Mr Turnbull like all of us knows that the party giveth and the party taketh away.”

And what of the new prime minister’s stratospheric personal approval ratings, rivalled in recent years only by Kevin Rudd? “Whether the 68 per cent is real or not, I don’t know,” said Back, “but we’ll take it in the meantime.”

He may have turned around the government’s fortunes within weeks of becoming prime minister, but Turnbull cannot afford even a hint of hubris. Not only does he have to keep his Liberal detractors on side, he’s also got to reckon with the Nationals.

The party’s insistence that Turnbull stick to Abbott’s position on same-sex marriage and climate policy is well known. But there are also signs of possible tensions emerging over a policy that Turnbull wants to make his own.

As Labor this week attacked Turnbull for having adopted holus-bolus Abbott’s platform, including the 2014 budget, Turnbull singled out his interest in funding rail projects as one crucial difference from Abbott.

“As you can see, that is a very significant shift that has been very much welcomed across Australia,” he said. “We are looking at urban infrastructure without discriminating as to whether it is road or rail.”

Wherever he travelled around the country as communications minister, Turnbull delighted in tweeting a photo aboard a train, tram or bus. His frolics on public transport served to show up Abbott’s fixation on big roads projects.

But if he hopes to make his passion for public transport a signature policy, it seems he is yet to persuade his own deputy prime minister to get on board. 

A spokesman for Nationals leader and transport minister Warren Truss says the Commonwealth has already allocated more than $50 billion to state governments’ five-year infrastructure plans, which started in July 2014, and there’s no new cash for rail.

“If the states want to revise their priorities, then we’re all ears, but they will need to decide which of their existing commitments they want to axe,” he says.

“It’s all very well for them to run around the countryside saying, ‘We want this funding for passenger rail’, but they will need to nominate which other programs they want to cut. There’s no new pot of money.”

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the PM’s pet policy and suggests that, on some policies, the Nationals and Turnbull still diverge.

Some things don’t change.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 24, 2015 as "Turnbull versus the right". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.