Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party is splintering.
The pragmatic Party of Government designed by Menzies has been in power in Canberra for almost two-thirds of its 74-year history, but it’s now in a “mess”, as one senior minister put it.
A rapid turnover of leaders, climate change, energy policy, refugees on Nauru and an equal role for women in Parliament, are among the issues roiling the Liberals, contributing to their spectacular fall from electoral grace.
In just over three months the parliamentary Liberal Party has ousted a Liberal prime minister, gone from leading a majority government to a minority administration threatening to collapse. It suffered a negative swing of 14 per cent in the Victorian state election a week ago, of 18 per cent in the October 20 Wentworth byelection, and of 28 per cent in the September 8 byelection in Wagga.
At the same time, former Liberal Party deputy leader Julie Bishop is freelancing over divisive policy issues, like climate change and energy, and positioning for a possible tilt at the leadership if the Liberals lose the next federal election.
This domestic political chaos is occurring at a time of rising global tension over a trade war between the world’s two superpowers, the US and China, and the local disarray has alarmed senior business figures. Doug Shears, chairman of agribusiness company ICM, said: “Many of our current batch of political leaders seem to prioritise self-interest ahead of the policy initiatives on which they are elected.
“While they bicker and scheme, Australia’s future opportunities are being eroded and future generations will pay the price. As one [leading African politician] said to me recently when commenting on our political scene: ‘If that is the result of a Western democracy, then we pass’.”
Tony Grey, a former managing director of Pancontinental Mining, says “something really must be done to re-adhere Australian politics”. A “fractionation” process, resulting in a growing number of independent MPs, “is getting out of control”, he said.
Last Tuesday’s defection to the crossbench of former Victorian Liberal MP Julia Banks, plus the victory of Dr Kerryn Phelps, a former AMA president standing as an independent in Wentworth, “bring the number of non-aligned federal politicians to a dangerous level”, Grey said.
By the end of a disastrous week for the Liberal Party, however, there were signs elements of the business community are moving to break the party’s crippling internal culture war deadlock by mounting a major move to push former Liberal leader and prime minister Tony Abbott out of his Sydney north shore seat of Warringah at the next election, just months after Abbott helped to destroy Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership.
A small group of Sydney business figures living in the harbour-side suburb of Mosman have raised $750,000 to back a candidate with a strong Liberal Party background to run against Abbott next year as an independent. The move is separate from attempts by local community groups like Voices of Warringah, also looking for a suitable independent candidate to take on Abbott on his home turf.
If successful, the anti-Abbott move would result in another addition to the seven crossbenchers now in a 150-member House of Representatives. This is the largest number of crossbenchers in Australian federal parliamentary history, with the qualified exception of short periods when the Country Party (now the National Party) has not been in Coalition with the Liberals.
By week’s end the Coalition has 74 lower house seats and Labor 69, but more Liberal defections to the crossbench are possible. Five-and-a-half months remain before the next federal election, although it could be triggered earlier by a major defeat of the Scott Morrison-led minority Coalition government on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The Liberal Party’s parlous opinion poll performance and disarray have led its staunchest members to forecast it can only win the next election if it is unified. Securing unity, however, may prove to be a political bridge too far for Morrison.
Not even Turnbull could have anticipated the wave of revolt, disgust and bitterness that followed his party room ouster. At a wider level, this has conflated with the global MeToo movement to become a semi-crusade for a revamp of the way in which Australians conduct their politics, including demands for a more female-amenable, less combative, environment.
Echoes of the UAP collapse
There are elements of the collapse of the Robert Menzies-led non-Labor (United Australia Party) government in 1941 and the Liberal Party’s leadership boilover in 1971 in the current crisis, but its unique quality is the intra-party wrecking ball effect of the climate-change issue.
Historian Ian Hancock, who has written biographies of former Liberal prime minister John Gorton, former Liberal attorney-general Tom Hughes, and has nearly completed a biography of Gorton’s principal private secretary, Ainsley Gotto, says even Menzies would have struggled to reconcile different views and factions within his own party over the climate-change issue.
“I don’t know if Menzies could have handled that. No one in the Liberal Party could have handled that. They are so sharply divided over this issue,” Hancock says.
Climate change culture war
Climate change results from a distortion of the earth’s atmosphere, largely by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. It has had a similar, distorting impact on Coalition politics, and has become the fault line in the party’s own culture wars. Personal ambition, rivalry and a small “l” (liberal) compared with a large “c” (conservative) difference in outlook, account for much of the accumulated political antipathy between the two former Liberal prime ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, but climate change acted as the crucible for the relationship meltdown
The issue of climate change has dogged the Liberals. It dates back 21 years to the Howard government’s refusal to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – a treaty that extended the UN framework convention on climate change, which itself obliged signatories to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was Turnbull’s support for the then Labor government’s proposed emissions trading scheme that led to his leadership ouster by Abbott in 2009.
More recently, Abbott and his supporters exploited the climate-change issue – this time through internal disagreements about the proposed National Energy Guarantee (NEG) – to mount the successful August 24 party room putsch against Turnbull.
On October 20 the call by groups like GetUp for an ambitious future government policy to combat climate change involving a Labor-style mandating of 50 per cent of power sourced through renewables by 2030, played havoc in the spectacular Wentworth byelection boilover. Just over a month later, the Victorian election was ostensibly fought over state issues, but climate change resonated among many voters.
Abbott has described climate change as “absolute crap”. Echoing this sentiment, Kevin Donnelly, a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and an academic poster boy for hard-line conservatives in the Liberal Party like Abbott, wrote in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph last Tuesday that Friday’s climate-change strike by school students was not surprising “given the steady diet of politically correct alarmism being taught about climate change”.
“It is obvious that the cultural left has taken the long march through our schools and universities,” Donnelly wrote.
A better understanding of motivation in this climate-change culture war comes from Tony Grey, who is also the author of four books and is a one-time corporate lawyer. He says the “underlying reason conservatives have a tendency to disagree with” the implementation of policies designed to combat climate change is that “the real purpose of progressives, who are promoting major changes concerning climate change, is to re-order society”.
Framed in this manner, it makes it more understandable that the climate-change issue has been shoe-horned by party conservatives into the Liberal Party’s culture wars.
Senate president and Liberal Party senator Scott Ryan, however, is one of the many Liberals – and many more Liberal supporters – who reject the climate-change denial mantra as a test for being a “true Liberal”.
“I want to cast the net wide in the Menzies and Howard tradition [so] as to give people a reason to be Liberals, not come up with litmus tests and say if you don’t hold this view on a social issue, or if you don’t hold this particular view on climate change or renewable energy, then somehow you’re not a real Liberal,” Ryan said after the Liberals’ disastrous performance in the Victorian state election.
“This is not the path to electoral success. And I’m sick of being lectured to by people who aren’t members of the party, by people who have never stood on polling booths, about what it means to be a real Liberal.”
Former foreign minister and deputy Liberal Party leader Julie Bishop also refuses to accept this climate-change denial Liberal Party entry test, calling on the government to revive Turnbull’s NEG after Morrison declared it was “dead”.
At the same time, however, associates of conservative NSW Liberal MP Craig Kelly, a close ally of Abbott and a vehement climate-change sceptic, have said he will resign from the Liberal Party and become an independent if he loses out in a preselection challenge mounted by so-called Liberal Party “moderates” in his seat of Hughes next February.
There is also speculation Craig Laundy, who hails from a pub-owning family business and leans towards small “l” liberal in outlook, may be considering leaving Parliament at the end of this term. However, both told fellow MPs during parliamentary sessions on Thursday they intend to remain as Liberal MPs.
Adani’s coal mine
Whatever happens to the two, another test for the Coalition relating to climate change – and the Labor Party – will be last Thursday’s announcement of a go-ahead on a scaled down $2 billion Adani Carmichael coal mine in central Queensland’s Galilee Basin.
Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said she doubted the project would go ahead, despite the claim by the Indian energy company, Adani, that it would be self-funded. Labor leader Bill Shorten has earlier given qualified support for the project, but both Queensland and federal Labor have shied away from offering public loan guarantees for its construction phase.
Shorten refused to comment on the mine go-ahead on Thursday, leaving opposition resources spokesman Jason Clare to point out the Indian company had a history of not delivering on its promises. “I think it’s very telling that no bank wants to invest in this,” Plibersek told the ABC the following day. “I am sceptical that this project will continue.”
The return of Adani to the headlines acts as a reminder of the problems that climate change has caused Labor, with pressure from its green-friendly supporters in urban areas against the counter-pressure in coal-rich regions for the party to remain open to high-paying mining jobs.
But in recent months it has been the split in the Liberal party over the issue that continues to play out in public, and be reflected in the ballot box. Whether the Morrison government can keep its rowdy troops in order for the remaining months leading up to a May election remains very much an open question.