If recent comments by arch-conservative Liberals Michael Sukkar and Zed Seselja are anything to go by, Tony Abbott’s ambition to use the government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee against Malcolm Turnbull is doomed to fail.
It’s likely neither of those names mean anything to you.
And unless you’re a regular watcher of Sky News in the morning, you’d probably be hard pressed to pick either junior minister from a line-up.
Although neither man is a household name, both ambitious young parliamentarians are the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to any real leadership trouble for the Prime Minister. So it pays to give close attention to their utterances.
Mr Sukkar and Senator Seselja are lieutenants to the conservative Liberal heavyweights Peter Dutton and Mathias Cormann. The foursome reportedly are a “very tight unit” that serves as a kitchen cabinet within Mr Dutton’s infamous Monkey Pod lunch club for conservative MPs.
According to a news media outlet with strong ties to the conservative side of politics, The Daily Telegraph, Mr Dutton and Senator Cormann set strategy for the Liberals’ right faction, while Messrs Sukkar and Seselja are “responsible for day-to-day management of the group, co-ordinating their views and responses and disseminating information”.
Judging from their regular appearances on Sky News, the two young conservatives use the news network as part of that co-ordination effort, publicly reinforcing what they’ve been saying privately to their colleagues. And right now, that message is “don’t destroy the National Energy Guarantee”.
Just yesterday, Senator Seselja used a Sky News appearance to confirm that “without a doubt” the majority of the Coalition party room supported the PM and his Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg on the NEG.
Senator Seselja praised Mr Frydenberg, saying the minister was doing “an outstanding job” and “I’m sure what he will get in the end of it is an outstanding policy that delivers reliable energy, affordable energy, and also meets our international obligations”.
Mr Sukkar sang from the same song sheet last week, on the same day that previews of Mr Abbott’s ‘leave Paris’ speech appeared in the media.
During his Sky News interview Mr Sukkar said: “I really do take my hat off to Minister Frydenberg. He’s taken on a fraught policy area … and he’s done it in a way I think even our staunchest critics in the Labor Party find hard to criticise, the approach he’s taken with the NEG … Josh has, in a reasonably laser-like fashion, focused on stability and price and I think that’s what the party room’s willing him on to do.”
It would be a mistake to interpret the comments by either MP as a softening of their conservative principles. Both men remain hard-core conservatives.
Senator Seselja, who represents the ACT, abstained from voting on the marriage equality bill after saying he’d respect the wishes of the territory’s voters. More recently he backed a Senate motion denouncing the creation of exclusion zones around abortion clinics in NSW.
Meanwhile, Mr Sukkar is part of the conservative push in Victoria to rid the Liberals of moderates, which he’s described as socialists and termites that must be crushed.
The only thing that is more undeniable than their conservative credentials is the ambition and determination of Zed Seselja and Michael Sukkar to stay on the government frontbench. It was Mr Turnbull, not Mr Abbott, who put them there.
As long as Messrs Seselja and Sukkar continue to believe Malcolm Turnbull is the man to keep them there, Tony Abbott has zero chance of being drafted by the ascendant conservative forces within the Liberal Party to lead it again.