News National Why the Liberals’ young gun conservatives will tap the PM on the shoulder
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Why the Liberals’ young gun conservatives will tap the PM on the shoulder

Turnbull leadership
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton: Positioning to become the heirs apparent. Photo: AAP
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Aside from the strong result in favour of marriage equality this week, the most interesting thing to emerge from federal politics was the growing chasm between the old and new generations of conservatives jostling for relevance within the Turnbull Government.

Neither generation supported the concept of same-sex marriage, except for conservative Liberal Senator Dean Smith who sponsored the private member’s bill that will legalise gay marriage before the end of this year.

But the two camps took distinctly different approaches to the matter – differences that expose divergent views within Liberal conservatives of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, as well as the future of the government.

You might recall it was Tony Abbott who first raised the idea of a national vote on marriage equality. The idea was little more than a stalling tactic, designed to avoid giving Coalition MPs a free vote on the private members’ bill sponsored by the Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch.

Mr Abbott’s gay marriage plebiscite became a totemic issue for conservatives in the government, with those in the National Party making it a condition of the new Coalition deal struck with Malcolm Turnbull when he took over as PM in 2015.

Even when the plebiscite proposal had twice been rejected by the Senate, Mr Abbott insisted that his successor should keep taking it back to the Parliament rather than give a free vote to Liberal MPs.

The young-gun conservatives could see that this was an unsustainable situation. Opinion polls, including research conducted by the Liberals’ own pollsters, Crosby Textor, showed strong support around the nation for marriage equality. And the small but growing number of openly gay Liberal MPs agitated within the government to fix the inequity.

It made much more sense strategically to resolve the matter so the government could go back to talking about everyday kitchen-table issues like electricity prices.

So the “young” conservatives – a term loosely used to describe the cohort led by Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann – came up with the postal survey as a way to meet conservative demands for the plebiscite commitment to be honoured but also draw the matter to a close.

Reportedly it was Scott Morrison, once rejected by the Abbott camp as a traitorous faux conservative, who first suggested the idea.

Now the survey is complete, and all but a handful of Coalition electorates voting yes, the two conservative groupings within the Coalition have continued to be divided in their approach to finalising the matter.

The old guard identified a potential way to frustrate passage of Senator Smith’s bill through the Parliament, using ‘young fogey’ Liberal Senator James Paterson to present a rival private member’s bill on same-sex marriage that essentially made an ambit claim for various freedoms such as religion, speech, parenting and commercial baking.

Senator Paterson’s bill looked suspiciously like another stalling tactic, but it could have also been a tactic to make any subsequent amendments to the Smith bill look less unpalatable.

Either way, it soon became clear that there’s not enough time this year to debate a bunch of freedom amendments and get the law passed.

And so on Friday, the new-guard conservatives came to the rescue again, suggesting that the freedom issues be held over until the new year so that the Smith bill could be passed before Christmas, thereby delivering on Malcolm Turnbull’s election commitment. Notably, Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison led the charge.

Aside from the thumping repudiation Tony Abbott received from his own constituents on gay marriage this week, the related actions of these “younger” conservatives make it clear that they too have well and truly moved on from the former prime minister.

That’s not to say the young guard is less conservative than the old one. We saw from the Cory Bernardi stunt this week, when right-wing Liberals voted with him on a number of mischievous Senate motions, that the new generation can be as deeply old-fashioned as their older colleagues.

But they also appear to have decided that Malcolm Turnbull is their best bet for the immediate future. Everything the new generation of conservatives has done on marriage equality has been to protect Malcolm Turnbull, which in turn has thwarted Tony Abbott.

However, that protective stance won’t last forever, and it no doubt comes with a price.

Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison are each positioning to become the heir apparent, but it is clear from their actions that regicide is not their preferred way of realising that ambition.

At some point the young gun conservatives will expect the PM to bow out gracefully, and when that time comes they will simply tap him on the shoulder.

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