Malcolm Turnbull must put more conservatives in the cabinet and demote Christopher Pyne if he wants to hang on to his leadership and prevent civil war, senior conservatives say.
As Tony Abbott stepped up his campaign to topple Mr Turnbull with a provocative speech over policy direction, the Prime Minister sought to restore calm by killing a push by fellow moderates to secure the passage of a bill for same-sex marriage as early as August.
But senior conservatives say Mr Turnbull needs to bring forward a planned reshuffle of his cabinet, pencilled in for the end of the year, and make major changes to give conservatives a greater influence in the decision-making process.
Multiple sources said the Right wants Attorney-General George Brandis and Defence Minister Marise Payne, both moderates, dropped and given diplomatic posts while Mr Pyne could stay in cabinet but be removed from the leadership team by being stripped of his title as government Leader of the House. That role, say the MPs, should go to senior conservative Peter Dutton, while Matthias Cormann would replace Senator Brandis as government leader in the Senate.
The two cabinet vacancies would be filled by conservatives from the junior ministry while parliamentary secretaries, possibly Angus Taylor and Michael Sukkar, would be among those elevated to the junior ministry.
“It’s always been the Left that’s kept him in power. Malcolm now has to appease the right to keep himself in power,” said one conservative .
Another said the Right would no longer be “bought off” with junior ministry appointments.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
Trouble flared on Monday when a speech by senior moderate Christopher Pyne to a closed factional function on Friday night was recorded and leaked. In it, he boasted of the increasing moderate control over the party and flagged that polarising issue of same-sex marriage would be resolved soon.
This riled the Right which has grown increasingly frustrated at Mr Pyne’s influence.
“It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said a conservative of Mr Pyne’s speech.
“Pyne has been getting away with it. Now he’s damaging Malcolm.”
So bitter have the divisions become that at a corresponding dinner of the party’s right wing on Saturday night, organised by the Young Liberal Movement and Eric Abetz’s office, conservatives who voted for Mr Turnbull in the 2015 leadership spill were excluded. These included ministers Alex Hawke, Michaelia Cash, Scott Ryan and Mitch Fifield. Mr Abbott received a standing ovation at the dinner.
“It’s who supported Abbott and who did not. That’s become the line in the sand,” said a senior source of who now is counted as a true conservative.
Although Mr Abbott is now the Right’s chief bomb-thrower against Mr Turnbull, there is little appetite among his own faction to see him in cabinet or even as a leadership candidate, should the situation continue to deteriorate.
In one of his strongest acts of destabilisation yet, Mr Abbott used a speech in Brisbane to slam Mr Turnbull’s compromises designed to “end the policy wars” and instead advocated a strategy of conflict.
Mr Abbott and other conservatives have become openly critical of what they call the Labor lite approach, pointing to the Gonski 2.0 school funding reforms, a direct lift of Labor policy, and moves to introduce a Clean Energy Target.
“The risk with compromises designed to end policy wars is that the war doesn’t actually end, the battleground just shifts, and in the meantime, principles have become negotiable, and the whole political spectrum has moved in the wrong direction,” Mr Abbott said.
“What’s needed now is a clear sense of what the conservative side of politics stands for and a clear understanding in the community of what we’re trying to do.”
New battle lines
He said the next election won’t be won by “drawing closer to Labor”.
“The next election can only be won by drawing up new battle lines that give our people something to fight for; and the public something to hope for,” he said.
Mr Abbott declared “we need to make Australia work again” as he sent Mr Turnbull an ominous message.
“I can assure you: I’m in no hurry to leave public life because we need strong liberal conservative voices now more than ever.”
He said politics worldwide was volatile “and here the whole political spectrum seems to have moved to the left.”
Mr Abbott again outlined ideas which he believes should be at the core of the conservative policy manifesto. These include freezing the renewable energy target and abandoning plans for a clean energy target; a moratorium on wind farms; the immediate construction of a coal-fired power station, by the government if necessary; a “big slowdown” in immigration to help boost wages and lower house prices; a ban on new spending to get the budget under control; and to end Senate gridlock through constitutional change.
Earlier, Mr Turnbull squashed a push by his backbench to legalise same-sex marriage before the next election using a private members bill.
While leaving open the possibility of taking a different policy to the next election, such as a free vote in Parliament , Mr Turnbull said the Coalition would not be supporting any vote for same-sex marriage before the election unless there was a plebiscite first.
“The next election is two years away and we will examine our policy in the lead up to the next election, but we made a commitment at the last election that we would have a plebiscite,” he said.
“We will not support a vote in the Parliament until there has been a plebiscite. We are not going to change our policy.”
Same-sex marriage threatens to blow up the party
Gay marriage is now the flashpoint issue threatening to blow up the party.
Liberal moderates Dean Smith and Trent Zimmerman are reportedly behind moves to introduce a private members bill when Parliament resumes in August. It would only take a handful of Liberals to exercise their right to cross the floor to ensure the bill passed.
But the bill cannot be brought on for debate without the imprimatur of a government-controlled Bills Selection Committee.
To override this, some Liberals would also need to cross the floor to garner the minimum 76 votes needed to force the bill to be considered for debate.
Mr Turnbull sent a stern warning to any moderates considering such a plan.
“People can raise what they like in the party room. Private members bills have to be considered by the Bills Selection Committee,” he told radio station 3AW.
“We do not support a bill relating to gay marriage being brought on until there was a vote of the Australian people.”
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