News National Turnbull fends off bolshie Nationals over Macfarlane

Turnbull fends off bolshie Nationals over Macfarlane

Ian Macfarlane
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At least the state executive of the LNP in Queensland had noticed the difference the Turnbull prime ministership had made to their fortunes.

The tight, two-vote margin decision after a marathon three-and-a-half hour meeting in Brisbane to block a vengeful Ian Macfarlane deserting the Liberals is a big win for Malcolm Turnbull.

His sacking of Mr Macfarlane for the purpose of cabinet renewal has been endorsed. Threats to undermine him have been stymied.

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A Galaxy Poll in Queensland after the change of federal Liberal leadership showed a dramatic swing back to the Coalition. Not only federally – it also washed over to LNP representatives in the state parliament.

Under the terms of the merger of the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland, the federal seat of Groom was earmarked as one where the LNP member would sit as a Liberal in Canberra.

Malcolm Turnbull (left) and Ian Macfarlane discuss politics in Canberra in 2008. Photo: AAP

In effect, the decision then was a status quo one. In a quirk of politics north of the border, the Liberals historically do better at the federal level than they do at the state level. There, the Nationals generally return more MPs.

So at the last federal election the LNP returned 22 MPs. The overwhelming majority (16) sit in Canberra as Liberals, six as Nationals.

The Macfarlane desire to sit on the other side of the Coalition bus was no benign move. It was heavily mired in other agendas.

Those agendas had two purposes: to improve the power of the federal Nationals and constrain a “dangerously progressive” Malcolm Turnbull.

Barnaby Joyce and other Nationals make no secret of their disappointment at the knifing of their preferred Liberal leader Tony Abbott.

Despite Nationals denying any nefarious motives, senior Liberals from the Prime Minister down were outraged.

Mr Turnbull made his feelings perfectly known in a tense phone conversation with LNP state president Gary Spence. Importantly, the PM had the party’s influential founding president Bruce McIver on his side.

In a statement, Mr Spence said: “The decision has been made after taking into consideration the best interests of the LNP in Queensland.”

Malcolm Turnbull
The PM has scored a big win. Photo: Getty

A new by-law will be inserted in the party’s constitution preventing MPs swapping parties within the LNP unless there is a redistribution of seat boundaries.

Make no mistake about it, what has been avoided is a bout of Coalition infighting.

Mr Turnbull was privately adamant he would not agree to Mr Macfarlane’s re-entry into cabinet even if the Nationals nominated him – the exact plan Mr Joyce had in mind and that the current leader Warren Truss was dragooned into supporting.

Queensland-generated Coalition disunity has in the past destroyed the federal Coalition’s election chances. Exhibit A: the ‘Joh for Canberra’ crusade in 1987. John Howard to this day gets angry thinking about it.

Liberal cabinet ministers let it be known that they would not sit in cabinet with Mr Macfarlane if Mr Turnbull caved in to the bolshie Nationals demands.

Mr Macfarlane says he will now take a break and consider his future after Christmas. He told his divisional members on Saturday if his bid to sit as a National failed he would retire from politics. This was read as an implicit threat to cause a by-election.

He now says he’s too young to retire. Mr Spence says the welcome mat is still out for him to run as an LNP candidate for the Liberals at the next election.

But it’s clear he has no appetite for the backbench. The threatened by-election cannot be ruled out.

Mr Turnbull’s hand has been strengthened. But the tensions generated by ambition and a conservative pushback have not gone away.

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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