Paul Bongiorno
The Liberals’ fight for Menzies’ legacy

Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, is back at the centre of political controversy and skulduggery thanks to his successor as Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull. He evoked the ghost of Menzies in a contentious speech delivered in the Old Dart to cloak himself and his government’s direction in the mantle of the party’s founder.

It was a calculated spear in the ground. A defiant snatching away from Tony Abbott of the defining of the party’s essential character. A fend against the leader he vanquished and who has become his chief tormentor. Forget all the palaver that it was nothing more than a perfectly reasonable and sensible historical perspective. When a government is in such dire straits, thanks to the utter rejection of its direction by its own former prime minister who is still a member of parliament, nothing is business as usual.

Turnbull’s official political opponent, Labor’s Bill Shorten, summed it up perfectly: “The Turnbull government is in the middle of an identity crisis and they’ve forgotten what their real job is – it’s to look after the country.” Even though every minister who fronted the media this week insisted that’s exactly what they are trying to do, they cannot credibly deny there is one hell of a distracting internecine battle going on.

Clearly Turnbull is fed up with the campaign being waged by Abbott, his small coterie of supporters in the parliamentary party and his cheerleaders in sections of the media. With Abbott’s call to arms for conservatives “to take our party back”, the prime minister has no real option but to retaliate. And nothing is more basic than defending his leadership as completely Liberal orthodox against accusations that he is a heretic pushing the agenda of the Labor Party.

He chose a curious time and place to do it: an acceptance speech of the Disraeli prize, an award named after the famous British Conservative prime minister and made by the centre-right think tank the Policy Exchange. This was slammed by former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett as an appalling lack of judgement. On ABC Radio he asked why Turnbull would do it: “Why would you do it from overseas? Why would you throw a can of petrol onto a fire?”

The most persuasive answer is that there is every sign that the forces arrayed against the prime minister are succeeding in growing the flames. Turnbull was sending them a clear message that he wasn’t going to meekly surrender. So he drew from the Menzies biography, Afternoon Light, published in 1967, a year after the inaugural Liberal Party leader’s retirement: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.” That sure looks like a glowing endorsement of the “progressive” Turnbull against the “reactionary Abbott”.

Except a very disillusioned Menzies in 1974 wrote to his daughter despairingly about “Liberals with a small l” – the other nomenclature bestowed on Turnbull’s moderate faction. Menzies’ beef was with the moderate Liberal Victorian government of Dick Hamer and the executive that backed him. “The main trouble in my state is that we have the State Executive of the Liberal Party, which is dominated by what they now call ‘Liberals with a small l’ – that is to say, Liberals who believe in nothing but still believe in anything if they think it worth a few votes. The whole thing is tragic.”

Turnbull did caution that Menzies should be seen in his historical context. He claimed with some justification that the founder was positioning his new party in the “sensible centre”. As an afterthought he sourced this phrase to Tony Abbott but didn’t let that stop him from concluding that was the place to be “and it remains the place to be now”.

What we do know about Menzies is that he was pragmatic, prudish, opportunistic, eloquent, quick witted and very lucky. His luck came in the form of the Santamaria-inspired split of the Labor Party, which helped keep him in power. But he was also ruthless. He didn’t brook internal dissent. He isolated rivals and got them out of the way – the most famous, shunting Dick Casey to Washington. His opponents bestowed on him the nickname “Ming the Merciless” after a popular comic book villain. Turnbull could well also look to this aspect of the Menzies legacy to inspire him. His allies in the party hope his Disraeli speech means he is about to apply it. “What has he got to lose?” was the view of one.

Shunting Tony Abbott off to Washington or London is not an option. Abbott has let it be known he plans to stay around a long time as a guardian of the party’s conservative credentials. Those close to him say he would rather be a truck driver or garbage man than a diplomat. Besides, there’s nothing he enjoys more than political battle. And it would seem no matter the consequences.

Party elders are concerned. Victoria’s Liberal president, Michael Kroger, hopes and predicts the conflict will be sorted by Christmas. He says there are intense behind-the-scenes conversations going on. Midweek there was a story doing the backbench rounds that former prime minister John Howard had been enlisted to ask his protégé Abbott to back off. Apparently Howard was sent packing.

Nor would Abbott be much impressed by new federal party president Nick Greiner. Greiner is firmly in the moderate camp. When he was premier of New South Wales in the late ’80s he described his agenda as “warm, dry and green”. Socially warm, economically dry and environmentally committed. On the day Newspoll recorded its fourth successive six-point lead to Labor, Greiner criticised Abbott’s alternative policy agenda – which included a referendum to nobble the senate – as impossible to implement and agreed that his interventions were damaging the government.

The big question is: has Turnbull got time to retrieve the situation? Not if Abbott remains in parliament is the assessment not only of Nationals backbencher Michelle Landry, who like 11 other government MPs holds her seat by less than 1 per cent, but also of Bill Shorten. Sure it’s to his advantage to stoke the fire, but who can argue with his observation that Turnbull can’t even go to London without taking his “mess and division with him”? He says that when it comes down to the fight between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, one of them has to go “for the good of the nation”.

There are two big issues Turnbull has to confront now he is back home: implementing the Finkel clean energy target and a free vote for marriage equality. Either could see the ultimate showdown if, as some are now hoping, Turnbull is ready to crash through or crash. If he crashes, he says he will leave the parliament, which would solve one problem only to create a bigger crisis.

 And that is the harsh reality. Without Turnbull the government’s vestigial credibility would be completely shredded. But do his critics care? Abbott certainly doesn’t. He’s hell-bent on Turnbull’s destruction. He, like his urgers in the media, actually believes it is Turnbull’s lunge leftward to the centre that is responsible for the government’s poor showing in the polls. No wonder the descriptor “delcons”, or delusional conservatives, is being thrown around. Lemmings would be more appropriate.

One old-hand Liberal MP says the Finkel target is a disaster. The government is caught in the grip of the coal industry and substantial donors such as mining magnate Gina Rinehart. She is not to be underestimated. So angry was she with those who plotted against Abbott that she withheld thousands of dollars from them at the last election. It played no small part in the loss of the bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro by the Liberals’ Peter Hendy.

Turnbull may have more luck getting marriage equality out of the way. He will not change his plebiscite policy. He doesn’t have to. A private member’s bill could do the trick providing it can garner a majority in both houses. To do that, some government MPs and senators will have to defy the free vote ban. There is a growing mood for that to happen and the reason is simple: survival.

Liberals say Ewen Jones lost his Queensland seat of Herbert because he had a congregation of 4000 happy clappers mobilise against him for supporting same-sex marriage. He lost by 37 votes after a recount. There is a widespread view that it would be madness to go to the next election without the issue off the agenda. Liberal senator Dean Smith will push ahead when parliament resumes. Turnbull, significantly, refuses to criticise him.

Other Liberals who do not support same-sex marriage are coming round to the view that a free vote is now appropriate. One says, if the conservatives want to make it a leadership issue, they are in for a shock.

We will see. The socially conservative Menzies would turn in his grave at the thought of gay marriage but he could hardly complain at his heirs and successors exercising a free vote. He used to boast that is what set the Liberals apart from those dreadful socialists in the Labor Party.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Changing Disraeli gears".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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