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Turnbull talks ideas, allies talk frontbench takeover

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With all the considerable rhetorical skill he could muster, Malcolm Turnbull announced Australia’s next magnificent adventure.

The deceased minerals boom will be replaced by an ‘ideas boom’. Unlike the riches in the ground, the only thing that can limit this new era will be our imagination.

But the note of welcome optimism was drowned out by the discordant sounds of players more interested in their own score than the pitch of the front man. The name of the 1980s rock band Boom Crash Opera comes to mind.

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The ‘ideas boom’ will come with no “guarantees of success” the Prime Minister boldly asserted. “That’s the old paradigm.”

Fear of failure can hold us back. Taking risks is the way forward, he proclaimed.

The old political paradigm was a state away on the edge of the Toowoomba Range. There, the local Liberal member Ian Macfarlane and his co-conspirator, Nationals Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, went ahead with a sod-turning for a major piece of infrastructure.

Warren Truss addresses the media in Canberra
Deputy PM Warren Truss is reportedly not a fan of Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Turnbull was a late withdrawal. He “chickened out”, according to Labor.

The Nationals want to change the infrastructure of the Coalition government.

Mr Macfarlane because he covets his old Cabinet position back and sees jumping to the other side of the bus as his ticket to ride.

Mr Truss because he wants a legacy of leaving the Nationals in a stronger position than when he assumed party leadership. And besides a majority of the party room want to remind the uncomfortably progressive Mr Turnbull that he can’t govern without them.

On weekend television two senior Queensland Liberal ministers, George Brandis and Peter Dutton, served notice that the plan to ambush Mr Turnbull was not appreciated. Their fury barely concealed. Their message carefully co-ordinated.

They flagged that the switch would not be supported by the state executive of the LNP – the new party born of an amalgamation of the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland.

I’m told Bruce McIver, a driving force in the merger of the two parties with impeccable National Party roots, is dead set against Mr Mcfarlane’s game plan.

AAP
Ian Macfarlane’s move to the Nationals is causing the PM grief. Photo: AAP

His belief, so far vindicated, is that the new political entity can only succeed if its constituent parts don’t try to bring each other down.

His clout as immediate past president on the party’s state executive is influential and other former Nationals on the governing body share his view.

The crucial meeting is a week away. It will come after Mr Macfarlane’s electorate council meets this week to decide whether having just endorsed him to sit as a Liberal they will change their minds.

The betting is they will. It is conservative Bible belt territory after all.

While the party’s grassroots may be excused for a narrow view of where their loyalties should lie, Mr McIver and others appreciate the wider damage of the Macfarlane play.

It surely undermines Mr Turnbull’s credibility when a senior former Liberal Cabinet minister of 10 years’ standing decides to give him a black eye.

Already it has flushed out the deep distrust the Nationals have of the Prime Minister. And that includes the mild-mannered Mr Truss. He pleads he could not alert Mr Turnbull to Mr Macfarlane’s anger, disappointment and revenge because it would breach a confidence.

Labor leader Bill Shorten didn’t miss them: “I’m sure they will be working overtime to paper over the cracks, but this is the first visible fault line of a government which is bitterly divided.”

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

Read all of his columns here

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