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After parliament’s first week, rifts within the government and opposition prove as telling as those between them. By Karen Middleton.

Schisms challenging party platforms

Malcolm Turnbull at the smoking ceremony to open the new parliament on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / MICK TSIKAS

On the eve of parliament’s return, the Nationals’ deputy leader, Senator Fiona Nash, found herself on a discussion panel defending “talking points” – the centrally issued notes from which politicians often speak.

“I think it’s very useful when you’ve got a [plan] – and this would go for both sides – where we all agree,” Nash said. “We’ve all got ministerial responsibility and we all know our individual portfolios inside out, and we have a collective view about a whole range of issues.”

Also speaking on the panel at the end of last weekend’s Canberra Writers Festival, Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese took the contrary view.

“I’ve found a really good way of not sounding like you’re sticking to the talking points,” Albanese chipped in. “Don’t read them. And I don’t.”

He also boasted that his media releases are not vetted by a central office.

“I think it’s absurd that I get some 14-year-old in a leader’s office somewhere checking all the points,” he said. “I just think we’d be far better off if there was a little bit of, ‘Yeah, there’ll be occasional embarrassment.’ I think there’s far too much in politics – on both sides – concentration on getting the message ‘right’.”

Albanese left the event and practised exactly what he had preached. Appearing on Sky News two hours later, he revealed division in his party over its position on some of the savings measures the government was trying to persuade Labor to support, and one in particular.

Previously, Labor has indicated support for removing the carbon tax compensation on Newstart payments. With the tax no longer there, the thinking went, the compensation could come off, too.

But now the party’s Left faction is pushing back, arguing that because indexation of the payments to inflation was effectively frozen for a year, the compensation was as much for that as for the defunct tax and that its removal will effectively send very-low-income earners backwards.

Albanese was not freelancing; he was acting as spokesman for that point of view.

“Labor should be very cautious about voting in favour of anything that hurts some of the most underprivileged people in our community,” he said. “So we’ll judge it according to Labor values.”

That means the Left is digging in, urging the Labor leadership not to disappoint those for whom $4 a week counts.

Malcolm Turnbull is applying pressure, calling the budget reform process the “great moral challenge” facing government and opposition. But he faces a whole other set of demands on his own side as the task ahead of him in this next parliamentary term unfolds in full colour.

The values argument is being pressed on social issues within the Coalition, especially from its conservative end.

South Australian senator Cory Bernardi has gathered the signatures of almost all of his senate Liberal backbench colleagues, co-sponsoring a proposed private member’s bill to resurrect plans to abolish Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to insult or offend someone on racial grounds. Bernardi is not in any particular rush to push the bill to debate.

All Coalition backbench senators except Liberal Jane Hume, plus seven crossbenchers – the four from One Nation, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, Family First’s Bob Day and the Justice Party’s Derryn Hinch – have signed a notice of motion in support.

Hume, a new senator from Victoria, is broadly sympathetic to removing the words “offend” and “insult” from the act but didn’t feel it was appropriate on her first day in parliament, when she hadn’t even given her first speech, to be co-signing a contentious private member’s bill.

After the bill’s introduction, it is up to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the government when – or whether – it is brought on for debate. Bernardi will soon head to New York as one of two parliamentary representatives visiting the United Nations for three months, meaning he won’t be around to agitate for the bill in earnest until next year.

But putting it forward in the first week of the 45th parliament was a warning shot to Turnbull that he expects it to be dealt with eventually, noting that the Coalition’s conservative base “seems a little disenfranchised at the moment”.

Bernardi told ABC Radio: “Clearly governments, and all of us as parliamentarians, are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. The government is entitled to set its own priorities, as am I, for my own constituency. And that’s the Australian conservatives who want to see reform in this space. Now I’m saying it’s on the agenda.”

There is already a compromise position on Bernardi’s proposed change, put forward late last year as an alternative.

The now minister for international development, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, told the National Press Club in October that inserting an “ordinary person test” could allow the offence of offending or insulting someone to remain in the act but with, effectively, a higher threshold test for a prosecution to be upheld.

At the time, Fierravanti-Wells also advocated against changing the law to allow same-sex marriage. The former assistant minister for multicultural affairs argued many in Australia’s migrant communities were strongly opposed.

This is one of the other issues forming itself into a problem for Turnbull.

Other conservative Liberals are pressing him to make good on his election pledge to hold a plebiscite – a non-binding national vote – which they are convinced would not garner majority public support for change.

Newly re-elected former special forces soldier turned West Australian MP Andrew Hastie rose in the Coalition party room this week to ask for that commitment.

Some conservatives are quietly cheering that Labor is suggesting it won’t vote for the legislation required to enable the plebiscite. They believe there is enough resistance in the community to same-sex marriage that the plebiscite would fail should it go ahead.

Turnbull has ruled out letting parliament vote on the substantial question itself, having promised the people a plebiscite. But if the vote on the enabling legislation fails, the plebiscite won’t proceed either.

“For those of us who want marriage to stay the way it is, we get what we want either way,” one conservative Liberal told The Saturday Paper.

Former human rights commissioner Tim Wilson, now the Liberal member for Goldstein, has added his voice to those advocating change – in favour of amending 18C along the lines that Bernardi proposes, but also in favour of same-sex marriage.

Wilson used his first speech in parliament on Wednesday to declare it was “the liberal ambition to preserve the freedom of people to express unpopular and challenging views”.

Wilson, an openly gay man, suggested migrant communities should accept the values of the wider Australian community.

“Advancing both [changes] may not be economic or create jobs, but both speak to our cultural confidence,” Wilson told parliament.

“And if we expect respect for these values from each other, we must also expect them from new Australians, too.”

Asked about amending Section 18C, Turnbull told parliament it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

“We have other, far more important priorities to deal with,” he said in the first question time of the 45th parliament, nominating budget repair and industrial relations.

“There is a wide range of opinions in the community about Section 18C and the language in it … As far as the government is concerned, we have no plans to change 18C.”

Superannuation is the third major internal battleground for Turnbull after deep unhappiness with the government’s proposed changes, as outlined in the budget and advocated at the election, emerged within the Liberal Party’s conservative base.

But after pre-parliament briefings from Scott Morrison and Kelly O’Dwyer, the public agitation from Coalition MPs has died down for now. When the Coalition parties held their first regular meeting of the parliamentary year on Tuesday, there wasn’t a single angry question.

Seventeen weeks after it last sat, as parliament’s first week back came to a close, the two major-party leaders were not showing any particular signs of the strain of these various agitations.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten seized on reports from a new book, The Turnbull Gamble by Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, that Turnbull and Morrison had favoured winding back negative gearing but the cabinet had not agreed.

“When will the prime minister start leading his party, not following his party?” Shorten asked.

Turnbull accused him of posing as “Robin Hood, a sort of latter-day champion of the poor and oppressed”. He could not resist reminding the opposition that for all its congratulations on a great election campaign, it didn’t actually win.

The jibing eased off slightly at Wednesday night’s press gallery Midwinter Ball, shifted back this year to the very last day of winter by the election timetable, and turned into a grand-scale parliamentary mixer for new and returning MPs and senators alike.

In their traditional roast-style speeches – which are off the record and therefore unreportable in their detail – both Turnbull and Shorten struck a witty, self-deprecating and appropriately sharp-edged note.

Even Westpac chief executive and managing director Brian Hartzer, presenting the award for press gallery journalist of the year to The West Australian’s Andrew Probyn, made a joke about being in the lion’s den.

Anxieties, like hostilities, may have been suspended, but it was a one-night-only thing.

Both leaders are well aware they face a febrile year ahead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "A house divided". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.