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Morrison saves face, but maybe not government

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Is history repeating for the Morrison government? Photo: AAP
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Scott Morrison is being held to ransom by the same irreconcilable forces that destroyed the prime ministership of Malcolm Turnbull.

The hard right of the parliamentary party was threatening to destroy the government unless he acted to save one of its most disruptive members.

Mr Morrison needed little persuading. He was still reeling from the defection of Julia Banks to the cross bench and was petrified at the prospect of another MP in Craig Kelly repeating the treachery.

Mr Morrison told parliament, through gritted teeth, that Mr Kelly had not threatened to quit if he lost preselection. A very different impression was created by Mr Kelly last week, which he fostered in various media.

Just before he flew out to the G20 in Argentina the Prime Minister let it be known that he wanted the New South Wales executive of the party to save the outspoken right winger from certain defeat in the grassroots preselection for his seat of Hughes.

Saving the preselection of Craig Kelly is another power play by the hard right.

When Mr Turnbull got wind of this, he began lobbying the state executive not to “give into threats of this kind.”

He told Radio National it was the “worst and weakest reason” to take the matter out of the hands of the members. He added it was the conservatives who have been pushing for more democracy in pre-selections.

No one did more than Mr Kelly to undermine Mr Turnbull’s attempt to end the climate wars through the national energy guarantee, a synthesis of emission reductions, reliability of electricity supply and affordability. All this despite Mr Turnbull intervening to save his preselection last time.

Like his ally Tony Abbott, Craig Kelly is at best a climate sceptic – at worse a denier who thinks the science is a hoax. He is also deeply unpopular in his local branch and for the second time running was set to be replaced.

The state executive was left with little choice but to save face for Prime Minister Morrison and to agree to his demands to save Mr Kelly by a blanket re-endorsement of all sitting members. In doing so they have done nothing to save the Liberal Party from itself.

This episode encapsulates the malaise that is destroying the so-called broad church. The conservatives have hijacked the party’s agenda pushing it to the extreme right on climate, sexuality and race.

After the desertion in droves of long-time Liberal voters in the party’s heartland seats in Victoria and the loss of Wentworth for the first time since federation, there is a real risk the shunned members in Hughes and the voters there will repeat a similar rejection at the general election.

Mr Turnbull is convinced they will not be alone and is urging Mr Morrison to stick to the election timetable they had agreed before his dumping, namely to go to a federal election in early March, three weeks ahead of Gladys Berejiklian’s state Liberal government.

One despairing backbencher says what the government needs in Canberra is a leader prepared to provide a dramatic circuit breaker.

He cites Queensland Labor Premier Peter Beattie once famously saying “the people of Queensland want to kick the Labor party in the bum and I am doing it.”

Just exactly what that could mean and whether Mr Morrison has the gumption to do it is completely problematic.

Before he left Parliament former attorney-general George Brandis was convinced the conservatives would rather lose the election than accommodate the moderates.

He likened it to a scorched earth approach that was motivated by the belief that from the ashes would emerge a purified genuine conservative party.

More likely what would emerge is two parties and a long time in opposition.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics.

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