While the Australian Labor Party has long-standing formalized factions (Singleton et al 2013, Australian Political Institutions 10e, Pearson Australia, pp 346-347) it has been ‘an enduring myth’ that the Liberal Party of Australia does not have factions (Abjorensen, N. 2015, Inside Story, 6 July http://insidestory.org.au/the-liberal-partys-faction-problem). This is definitely not the case because although not formally organised there are distinct liberal and conservative ideologically-based groupings within the party with differences of opinion about the role of government and the policies to progress their particular view of the political world.
Tensions created by this division have spilt over into political bloodletting. Malcolm Turnbull, generally regarded as a moderate, was outsted as Opposition Liberal leader by a conservative-led party room putsch on 1 December 2009. The move was fuelled by opposition from conservative Members and Senators to the direction of his policies and pushed to a head by arch conservative climate change sceptics within the parliamentary party opposed to Turnbull’s support for the Labor government’s carbon emissions scheme. Turnbull was replaced by ideologically conservative Tony Abbott albeit by the narrowest margin of 1 vote. The conservative influence from that point dominated the leadership and policy trajectory of the parliamentary party through to the 2010 federal election which the Coalition won and subsequently with Tony Abbott as prime minister progressing the conservative cause.
Abbott’s failure to connect with the public was reflected in dismal polling of his leadership performance. The unpopular policy agenda embodied in his government’s poorly-received 2014 budget exacerbated the situation. The Coalition’s continued trailing behind Labor in two-party preferred polling destabilised his leadership within the parliamentary Liberal party. This situation was not wholly the product of unpopular government budgetary policies. It reflected also Abbott’s personal style of leadership including an unwillingness to compromise and engage in pragmatic dealing with the Senate cross bench to facilitate passage of government legislation through the parliament and the disembodiment of his leadership from the ranks of Liberal MPs.
The prospect of the loss of many Liberal seats if the polls continued to favour Labor injected a strong element of electoral pragmatism into the leadership issue within the parliamentary party. On 14 September 2015 when push came to shove the conservatives were on the losing side when a Liberal party room coup, including 14 of the 35 member front bench, displaced the incumbent conservative Abbott with the moderate, more electorally popular Malcolm Turnbull by 54 to 44 votes. It was reported that a crucial element in the change of leadership was a shift in support from members of the centre-right to Turnbull (Martin, S. 2015, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/abbott-v-turnbull-how-the liberal-party-room-voted-story/5f2ef2b4340a9f72140e806a837cc09e).
The political style and language of Turnbull at his first conference after the ballot is indicative of the ideological approach his leadership will follow. He said ‘we will have now, an economic vision, a leadership that explains great challenges and opportunities that we face. Describes the way in which we can handle those challenges, seize those opportunities and does so in a manner that the Australian people understand so that we are seeking to persuade rather than seeking to lecture. This will be a thoroughly Liberal Government…committed to freedom, the individual and the market’ (Turnbull, M. 2015, ‘Transcript: Vote on the Liberal Party Leadership’, 15 September http://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/transcript-vote-on-the-liberal-party-leadership).
In the wash up from the leadership change the Liberal federal parliamentary party remains a ‘house’ divided. Turnbull’s ministry excluded arch conservatives Senator Eric Abetz and MHR Kevin Andrews. It included moderates Marise Payne and Arthur Sinodinos. Turnbull was heckled and jeered when he declared in a speech to the NSW Liberal Party state council ‘we are not run by factions’, a statement clearly at odds with the factional context associated with the ousting of Abbott. It was the reported opinion of a ‘senior Liberal insider’ that “it was quite ridiculous for Malcolm to even go there given the level of factionalism at the council. Everyone there is either on one side or another. Not only that, the factional wars in the Liberal Party are brutal”‘ (Hills, B. 11 October 2015 http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/business/work/malcolm-turnbull-booed-by-his-own-party-members-during-speech/story-fnkjjewc-1227564341518). The opinion has been put forward that ‘the conservative base detests the man’ [Turnbull]’ (cited in Warhurst, J. 2015, ‘Turnbull-Abbott rivalry reveals Liberals’ idelogical chasm’, Eureka Street, 30 November http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article-aspx?aeid=45756).
A disgruntled rump of arch conservatives festers on the back benches amid media speculation that dissidents may break away and establish a new conservative party. Maurice Newman, a former Abbott appointee to the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council reportedly warned Turnbull ‘to keep the conservative right wing of the Liberal Party on side or risk a party split’ (Chanticleer, 28 September 2015 http://www.afr.com/brand/chanticleer/maurice-newman-warning-to-malcolm-turnbull-20150928-giwqbn).
Plotting by conservatives to regain the leadership could be a real threat to Turnbull’s tenure. The recent precedent was set by defeated Labor leader Kevin Rudd’s successful pursuit, destabilisation and ousting of Julia Gillard, the rival who deposed him. The conditions of a failing government unlikely to win the forthcoming election underpinned Rudd’s revival and Turnbull’s successful challenge to Abbott. Current polling for Turnbull and his government is positive and under these conditions the conservatives would have difficulty in gaining the numbers to depose him. Electoral pragmatism was the significant element in Turnbull’s accession to the leadership when the threat of electoral disaster turned the tide in his favour within the party room. If Turnbull leads the Liberals to victory at next year’s federal election in the poll that matters, then electoral pragmatism will no doubt keep him in the driving seat and the conservatives will have to bide their time until the tide of public of opinion turns against him.
Dr Gwynneth Singleton
18 December 2015