A former Howard-era minister explained what made him so successful - and it's a warning to Peter Dutton

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer Prime Minister John Howard (centre) in 2005 introducing Chilean President Ricardo Lagos Escobar (left) to Amanda Vanstone (right), who was the Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs minister.

Amanda Vanstone spent 23 years in Canberra as a South Australian senator, including the nearly 12 years of John Howard’s government – the nation’s second longest-serving prime minister.

Vanstone’s ministerial career ranged from employment to justice, family and community services, and immigration, before she resigned from the Senate in 2007, then went off to be Australia’s Ambassador to Italy.

When Tony Abbott became PM, she was a member of the Abbott Government’s National Commission of Audit.

Last night she was on ABC TV’s 7.30, where she talked about what made John Howard so successful as a leader and the idea of the Liberal Party’s “broad church”.

Howard is the last leader to serve his full term as Prime Minister, 12 years ago.

Vanstone, along with former leader Dr John Hewson, believe that the conservative push underway will be a disaster for the Liberals, but it’s a good thing that the party has a broad range of views.

But the problem, as she sees it, is that the conservative faction’s approach is my-way-or-the-highway.

Here’s part of what she told Leigh Sales on 7.30:

I think it’s a great thing that the Liberal Party has this broad spread of views within it. I see it as a good thing.

And it does present problems for us sometimes and those occasions are when one section, and it’s normally the conservatives, say well, ‘Actually you’re allowed in the party just to give us the numbers to be in government, but really, we want everything our way’.

And you can see from the last couple of weeks where Prime Minister Turnbull’s gone out of his way to make concessions to accomodate the right wing – and in hindsight that might have been a mistake because they were never going to accept those concessions.

They want it their way or not at all.

The party is now rattled and it’s been “created by Abbott and a few of his ilk. And it is all about revenge”.

And Vanstone believes they don’t understand how out of touch they are with the general electorate, citing the Queensland MP Warren Entsch, who this morning relented and said he’s prepared to sign the Dutton petition for a spill if it breaks the current deadlock.

“If it’s so critical to the right wing that we have someone like Dutton like leader, how does someone like Warren Entsch, in the most northern seat in Queensland, a same-sex marriage supporter, get reelected. You know why? Because he’s a good member, that’s why,” Vanstone said.

And then she recounted what made Howard such a sustained success.

“Howard had a couple of difficult times when he wasn’t perhaps as accomodating of the broad church,” she said.

“The only way he got elected was by understanding that you had to agree to the broad church.

“To remind people, in 1996 we went with an election to put $1 billion into the environment… it was bigger than anyone it was gobsmacking… that was Howard recognising that you need to include both sides.”

Vanstone recounted a moment in Cabinet when the party was split and how Howard dealt with it, which reveals the dangers to the Abbott-Dutton camp now seeking to take control of the party.

I saw him actually say ‘Look I agree with you guys’ – that was the more conservatives – ‘but I’m going with them’ – and there was a bit of shock in the room – ‘because I think that’s what Australia thinks’.

That’s what these guys don’t get. They don’t get that Australia has moved on from there position. There are people who agree with them sure, but they’re not the majority, and they’re kidding themselves if they think they are.

They’re heading for electoral defeat if they think their views are the views of Australia at large.

John Hewson agreed that unless the Dutton camp is able to soften their position – many of his critics point out that he walked out of parliament when Kevin Rudd delivered The Apology to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal people – then any win today will be pyrrhic ahead of the next election.

Hewson said:

Those who are pushing the so-called conservative view – and let’s be clear, it’s not really a conservative view and it’s not a consistent position it’s just been an opportunistic platform on which to mount this challenge.

They’re kidding themselves to imagine that they could win an election by taking a hardline right genuine conservative position to the Australian people.

To give up the centre ground, to give up some of the left issues that are of importance to very significant percentages of the Australian people, they’re kidding themselves that they could win by narrowing the focus.

It’s inconceivable.

You can watch the full 7.30 interview here.

NOW READ: Decision Day – our live blog of today’s leadership challenge.

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