Suggestions of a political showdown between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former PM Tony Abbott have been papered over with smiles as the antagonists played it nice at Saturday’s Liberal Party conference.
The leadership tensions between the current and former leaders failed to gain traction among the 1500 Liberal members who gathered in Sydney for a special convention discussing NSW candidate selection and policy development.
It is understood Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott spoke on the phone about the convention earlier in the week after the leaders’ thinly veiled jabs at each other in the media.
In a poll conducted by The New Daily, almost 80 per cent of 1100 respondents said Mr Abbott’s public statements were “inappropriate and damaging” to the Coalition.
But at the conference, Mr Turnbull told NSW Liberals they should allow grassroots members to vote in pre-selections – a statement Mr Abbott interpreted as “unequivocally supporting” what is commonly referred to as the “Warringah motion” after the branch to which he belongs.
While the NSW Liberals currently debate changes to the party’s governance, Mr Turnbull said he supported giving every member a say in preselections.
“We will be reflecting the procedure that I believe every other division of the Liberal Party adopts in Australia,” Mr Turnbull said.
“So it is a very good idea, it’s a very good idea, but it is not a new idea.”
Mr Abbott’s motion would allow party members to vote in preselections after two years of membership, a measure intended to foil branch-stacking.
The former PM said he was “encouraged” by Mr Turnbull’s remarks.
“Listen to his words today. He is an absolutely unequivocal supporter of one member, one vote,” Mr Abbott said.
“Reform is coming and it is obviously coming with the full support of the Prime Minister, and that is a wonderful thing for the party,” Mr Abbott said.
“This is a contest between factionalists who want to keep power and democrats who want to open up our party. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister and I are on the same side.”
Speaking at the conference, Federal Liberal president and former New South Wales premier Nick Greiner said debate was healthy, but called for civility.
“We have had a tradition of civility, a tradition of having robust difference in the party or in the wings and we will always have that tradition and that reality,” he told delegates.
“But I do notice, it would be hard not to notice, some lack of that civility, some lack of that mutual respect.
“My plea to you tomorrow and going forward is, of course, we advocate with passion, of course we argue for our views on what is best for our party or for our nation, but not to do it in our tradition of civility of respect is unfortunate.”
Asked whether it was good the pair had sought to bury the hatchet, Cabinet Minister Arthur Sinodinos told reporters: “I’m always happy when all my colleagues are talking.”
On Sunday the conference will vote on the two methods of democratisation: Mr Abbott’s Warringah motion and a compromise motion, with stricter voting rights requirements.