Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Ian Macfarlane’s power play

On the night of September 15, Labor leader Bill Shorten rang an old acquaintance with long experience in politics. Malcolm Turnbull was now prime minister. “I’m stuffed, aren’t I?” Shorten said, to which the acquaintance responded: “Yes, mate, if it’s a contest between you and him. But if it becomes a fight between Malcolm, his own party and the Nationals, then you might be in with a chance.”

Shorten’s faint hopes of winning the next election may be about to brighten. This weekend in Toowoomba members of the Liberal National Party’s Groom Divisional Council will meet to accede to the wishes of their local member, who wishes to sit in Canberra as a Nationals MP rather than as a Liberal. For 17 years, Ian Macfarlane has been a Liberal in the parliament. For 10 years, he has been a cabinet minister, either in the Howard or Abbott governments.

His good friend and erstwhile political ally Malcolm Turnbull put an end to that. The prime minister told the news conference where he unveiled his new-look government that Macfarlane had taken a hit for the team. This week Turnbull explained on ABC TV: “The reason I did not appoint him to the cabinet after I became PM was not because he had been a poor performer, far from it. It was because I wanted to make room for new people, for younger people, for more women.”

The fact that this renovated administration has won broad and until now huge support from the nation is irrelevant to anger, hurt and ambition. Macfarlane immediately began plotting his revenge, and his return to the higher-salaried frontbench. And in this he played straight into the agenda of the Nationals’ deputy leader Barnaby Joyce. Joyce makes no secret of his commitment to asserting the Nationals brand and influence. He also makes no secret of his dismay at the knifing of Tony Abbott.

Joyce and his colleague John Williams argued strongly in the Nationals party room that a new Coalition agreement with the dangerously progressive Turnbull should not be rushed into. In the end, they wrung out of Turnbull a side letter to the Coalition agreement in which he undertook to leave in place Abbott’s conservative policies on gay marriage, climate change and other bits and pieces that have not to this day been revealed.

Macfarlane approached the president of the LNP, Gary Spence, who told him if he could get the approval of his divisional members and the state executive then he could make the switch. Spence says the constitution of the party is silent on MPs who want to sit on the other side of the bus. Besides, he is blind to Liberals and Nationals and only sees Queenslanders from the one big happy LNP family. He seemed completely unaware of the broader implications for the Turnbull-led coalition in Canberra. He didn’t acknowledge the move as one in the eye for the prime minister, or as strengthening the push-back coming from Abbott’s conservative Liberals and their mates in the Nationals.

Liberal cabinet ministers George Brandis, Peter Dutton and Christopher Pyne were not so blasé about the dangers. There is enormous pressure building on the 27-member state executive to strike down the switch should it pass the local hurdle. Founding president of the merged party, Bruce McIver, is also alert to the threat the Macfarlane play could pose to the federal Coalition.

That threat becomes clearer when the Joyce plan is thrown up on the big screen. Macfarlane would tip the numbers in favour of an extra National member going into cabinet. In March, Warren Truss is expected to step down as leader to be replaced by the member for New England, the colourful, ambitious, assertive and very conservative Barnaby Joyce.

A new Coalition agreement will then have to be signed. Joyce will insist on the “Abbott policy framework” and for Macfarlane to go into cabinet. The Liberals under the scenario would lose a minister. If the embattled Mal Brough is eventually forced to resign the ministry, he would not be replaced by another Lib. He would be replaced by a Nat.

The problem is, many Liberals are furious about it. They resent what they see as Macfarlane’s venality and Joyce’s overreach. It spells humiliation for Turnbull if he caves in. And in an election year, it would put up in bright neon lights the deep divisions in the government. It could even plunge the Liberals into minority.

This is not so far-fetched. Joyce has said in the past the crossbench could be a way of getting more for the Nationals’ rural and regional constituency. There are, of course, some in the Nationals party room who are not quite so gung-ho, but they are in the minority.

The opinion of New South Wales Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams is more typical. He has a tough-titty attitude. Wacka recalls how Liberal PM John Howard immediately sacked a Nationals minister, De-Anne Kelly, because the Victorian senator Julian McGauran switched to the Liberals in 2006. “It’s all about the numbers,” Williams says. “The Liberals can dish it out but they can’t take it.”

But unlike 2006, when the switch was all about Peter Costello gathering numbers for a challenge to Howard that never eventuated, this is more about the heart and soul of the conservative side of politics. And make no mistake: it’s the big C side. Adding force to the gathering storm was none other than the deposed hero of the righteous, Tony Abbott. He went on Sky News to announce – surprise, surprise – that he was now reconsidering his inclination to quit the parliament. The Christmas deadline for a decision has moved to April, coinciding with preselection for his seat of Warringah.

Ominously for Turnbull, Abbott is behaving increasingly like a Kevin Rudd. Just when the focus is on Turnbull and his “ideas boom” replacing the “mining boom”, Abbott makes a big grab for attention. While the opinion polls show no significant residual affection among voters for Abbott, as they did for Rudd, the 28th prime minister claims he’s had “thousands and thousands of messages of encouragement since mid-September”.

The message he’s getting, he says, is that he still has a contribution to make to public life. While Christopher Pyne at the National Press Club clearly indicated he would prefer that contribution be made from outside the parliament, the chances of that are slim. Abbott sees the role of an elected politician, even a backbencher, as a “very worthwhile vocation”. His mission statement apparently: keep the bastard who deposed me honest.

That is, honest to the Abbott world view. And to do it he will speak out. “I think it’s important to correct the record when the record has been falsified,” he said this week. “I did a bit of that last week, but I’m not in the business of replaying events ... It’s important I defend the legacy of the Abbott government.” Astonishingly, he went on to claim: “If I defend the legacy of my government, I’m helping the foundations of the Turnbull government.”

One veteran Liberal says his deposed leader is at about the third stage of grief. He’s been through denial, is still with the anger and bargaining, but depression and finally acceptance seem a long way off. It certainly seems to fit the behaviour. His good friend Greg Sheridan went in to bat strongly for Abbott in The Australian on Monday, urging Turnbull to restore him to cabinet, maybe after the election. That was dismissed by one prime ministerial adviser as “a recipe for disaster”. Bringing Rudd into cabinet did nothing for Julia Gillard. It didn’t stop the sniping and white-anting. Possibly, it made it worse.

But it seems completely lost on the Abbott cheer squad just how delusional their insistence is that Turnbull stay true to the narrow and divisive agenda that lost their hero support. The Daily Telegraph’s Miranda Devine saw the swing against the Liberals in Joe Hockey’s old seat as a warning for Turnbull not to desert the heartland conservatives. She even suggested the openly gay Liberal candidate Trent Zimmerman and Turnbull’s support for marriage equality were contributing negatives. She conveniently ignored the fact the final two-party-preferred swing looks like being close to just 6 per cent. That’s about average for byelections caused by a government member deserting an electorate early.

Hockey is now happily off to Washington, rewarded by the man who twice dudded him. Turnbull now fulsomely praises the former politician, but he shocked Joe by running against him for the leadership in 2009 and sacking him as treasurer this year. And yet our new ambassador unwittingly led many to think of Tony Abbott when he explained why he quit. “If I was going to stay, it’d be overwhelmingly about getting even with people that brought me down,” he said. “I love my country and my family more than I hate my enemies.”

On Monday, the LNP state executive will have to decide whether they will allow another bitter “Turnbull victim” to get even and threaten the very cohesion of the government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2015 as "Ian and out of love". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.