Taking a leaf from their opponents’ playbook, the moderates of the Liberal Party have struck back against the reactionary right by exploiting the weakened state of the Morrison government.
It’s true that recent events in federal politics resemble a dumpster fire more than a battlefield. But the skirmish between the moderates on the left-ish side of the party and the intransigents on the far-right is well underway.
This may have come as a surprise to the right-wingers, who originally used this tactic when exploiting the crushing defeat of the Liberals in the Longman by-election to justify their (failed) coup against Malcolm Turnbull.
They were ultimately outwitted by Mr Turnbull and the winner of that contest, Scott Morrison, but the arch conservatives have nevertheless pressed on, insisting the only way the Morrison government can survive the next federal election is to continue to take steps to the right.
Mr Morrison is also a conservative, but not necessarily as hardline as the extremists who share the views of Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton. His faction in the NSW Liberals has been dubbed the ‘soft’ right, although they share some conservative social views with the ‘hard’ right.
So it’s unsurprising that many of the new PM’s comments and decisions have dovetailed with their demands. He’s called out ‘gender whisperers’ on social media, accused Muslim leaders of failing to do enough about lone-wolf insurgents hidden in their communities, reduced the immigration intake, and established a slush fund to subsidise an increase in coal-fired power.
The PM also did his best to shut down public discussion of the complaints made by (the mostly moderate) Liberal women about the bullying and intimidation they experienced from (conservative) Liberal men during the most recent leadership spill.
But the thrashing dealt by Labor to the Liberals in the Victorian state election presented an opportunity for the moderate Liberals to strike back. At an emergency meeting reportedly held with Mr Morrison after the election, one of the senior moderates in the state warned the federal government’s recent lurch to the right was driving away Liberal voters.
This came from cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer, who said the government was seen by Liberal supporters in that state as homophobic, anti-women and climate deniers.
Scott Ryan, another senior Victorian Liberal and president of the Senate, reminded his party in a radio interview the inner-city seats of Melbourne were its birthplace and ‘real base’. These were among the seats that swung to Labor and helped secure another term for its state government.
“These voters who are our electoral base – this is our real base as a Liberal party – they sent us a message,” Senator Ryan said.
And in case PM Morrison thought he could sweep these complaints under the rug along with those of the bullied women, one of those women quit the party in protest about both matters. Julia Banks had already declared she would not recontest her Victorian seat of Chisholm at the upcoming election, due to bullying and intimidation at the hands of her colleagues, as well as their despatch of Malcolm Turnbull.
But this week, Ms Banks pulled the pin earlier than expected, not only resigning from the Liberal Party but moving to the crossbench. In her resignation statement to Parliament, Ms Banks denounced the Liberals’ reactionary right for their “brutal blow against the leadership” and those who supported the insurgents in return for “individual promotion, pre-selection endorsements or silence”.
On the crossbench, which holds the balance of power since the independent Kerryn Phelps replaced Malcolm Turnbull, Ms Banks now has considerably more power than she had on the government’s backbench to drag the Liberals back from the extreme right. Her early options include sending Peter Dutton to the High Court over his section 44 eligibility, establishing a federal ICAC, and bringing asylum seeker children back to Australia from Nauru.
These recent efforts by the Victorian Liberal moderates would have been welcomed by their philosophical allies in the NSW branch of the party. The NSW division is famously the last bastion of the moderates, with conservatives having seized control of the party’s organisational wing (and therefore preselections) in most other states and territories.
Last weekend, the NSW Libs elected a member of the ‘soft’ right faction, Hollie Hughes to the number one spot on its senate ticket. The moderate Andrew Bragg was elected to the second spot, while the conservative flag-bearer and former major-general Jim Molan was relegated to the unwinnable third spot. It’s also increasingly likely that another of the key figures in the extreme right, Craig Kelly, will lose his NSW preselection to a moderate.
This leaves the PM in an invidious position – does he continue the lurch to the right demanded by one dominant element of the Liberals, or lean back to the left to placate the increasingly influential moderates (not to mention the moderates on the crossbench)?
Then again, it may not matter a jot what Mr Morrison thinks, or does. If conservative voters smash the Liberals in the upcoming federal election as they did in Longman, while moderate voters in Victoria do the same, Mr Morrison may be left with only one remaining choice. That will be to decide whether he wants to be the one who’s left picking up the charred pieces of what used to be the party of the mighty Robert Menzies.