Turnbull, Morrison and the crisis in the Liberal Party

The right wing insurgency in the Liberal Party brought down Malcolm Turnbull. But it has failed to elevate its number one candidate, former home affairs minister Peter Dutton, to the prime minister’s office.

The 45-40 party room vote to elect former treasurer Scott Morrison has, for now, quelled the uprising. But let’s be clear, Morrison’s victory is not some great triumph of “moderation”.

His touted ability to “reach both sides of the aisle”, to potentially bridge the divide between the hard right and the centre right in the Coalition, stems from his being at once a hard neoliberal and a social conservative. 

Morrison, during his time as immigration minister, was the architect of the government’s inhuman Sovereign Borders boat turnback policy and the chief communicator of anti-refugee propaganda. He was so committed to denying human rights that Pauline Hanson reportedly said in 2015 that she would have preferred him over Tony Abbott as PM. 

He led the “It’s okay to say No” brigade in the marriage equality plebiscite and led the push for a “religious freedoms” bill to undercut the result.

As social services minister, he gave the green light to the Centrelink “robodebt” disaster and decried as “double dipping” rorters mothers who accessed both government and private parental leave entitlements. And as treasurer, he has been the champion of tax cuts for big business and the well off and a strident defender of all the rorts used to give wealthy investors massive tax discounts. 

Yet, even with these reactionary credentials, which form the basis of the party room compromise, Morrison may yet prove too “moderate” for the party’s hard right.

Turnbull’s failure

The Liberals turned to Turnbull in 2015 to save their skins in the next federal election. The capitalist class backed him as leader in the belief that this “sophisticated” former investment banker could win the public over to its favoured economic agenda. The cloddish Abbott and his “age of entitlement” treasurer Joe Hockey had failed dismally in that task.

Some on the hard right held their noses and voted to depose one of their own, Tony Abbott, in favour of the more electorally popular Turnbull, from whom they gained guarantees that the new leadership would not alienate social conservatives.  

But the Coalition under Turnbull only scraped through the 2016 election, 14 Coalition members losing their seats. And throughout the conservatives’ second term in office, they have trailed the ALP in 38 Newspolls. 

Turnbull’s failure was primarily down to little public support existing for the economic agenda he favours, one with its origins in the Business Council and Institute of Public Affairs. But his failure to push through some of his signature economic policies also disappointed his big business backers.

Hard right attacks

Turnbull’s failure to build a solid base of support provided the opening for the hard right to attack.

The prime minister’s leadership was destroyed by, as he put it at his last press conference, “a determined insurgency from a number of people both in the party room and backed by voices, powerful voices in the media”. 

The hard right – Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton – with a younger cohort of right wing warriors in the party, has secured an important victory in bringing Turnbull down. And it’s no secret that they were backed by a relentless public campaign led by far right media commentators such as 2GB radio’s Ray Hadley and the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt.

Had just three of the Liberal caucus switched their votes, Peter Dutton would now be prime minister, demonstrating that the party is split down the middle between the centre right and hard right. 

These factions have coexisted uneasily inside the Liberal Party for years, periodically ripping into each other in the NSW branch. The difference now is that the civilities that have papered over the differences in the federal party room were replaced by open warfare and revealed to the public day after day.

The dominant party of the Australian capitalist class, in office in Canberra for 47 of the last 69 years, is now in deep crisis because of this factional schism. 

Although it is often compared to the crisis of the last two Labor governments, which were torn apart by the battle between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the crisis in the Liberal party is more profound. 

The fight between Rudd and Gillard for leadership was driven exclusively by concern among the federal caucus over who could best save Labor seats at the 2010 and 2013 federal elections. 

The battle between the centre right and hard right inside the Liberal party today, however, is about ideology and the very character of the party. 

The far right MPs in the Liberal Party are buoyed by the success of Trump and the far right in Europe. They want a party that is proud to identify openly with their values – bigotry, racism, contempt for science and contempt for equality. 

They argue that the Liberal party under Malcolm Turnbull was, as Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells put it in her resignation letter to Turnbull, “moving too far to the left”, risking “our conservative base”.

While Turnbull did his best at bigotry, even regurgitating the scare stories about “African gangs”, the hard right could tell his heart wasn’t in it. 

He threw them a bone by running the plebiscite on marriage equality, but homophobia was not Turnbull’s strong suit.

He allowed Dutton to trim immigration by 10 percent in 2017-18 and to expand his powers with a super-sized Home Affairs portfolio, but he was not prepared to cut immigration to the degree favoured by the hard right.

In fact, every concession seemed only to embolden his enemies.

In the view of the hard right, therefore, Turnbull proved incapable of pushing through the neoliberal economic agenda, favoured by both factions, and a sufficiently right wing social agenda. He had to go.

There is no electoral mandate for much of the hard right agenda, except for cuts to immigration. For example, the plebiscite, an Abbott initiative, resulted in majorities for marriage equality in all but five Liberal or National electorates.

Polls showed that Dutton would have reduced the likelihood of people voting for the Coalition, and would have definitively put Shorten in the box seat to win the next election. As the Guardian’s Ben Doherty noted on 23 August:

“While the two-party preferred polls have put Labor in the ascendency for almost two years, the albatross around the opposition leader’s neck has been his stubborn unpopularity compared with … Malcolm Turnbull.

“Dutton as prime minister would reverse that: Shorten would be more popular in every state, and across all age groups, except those over 65, who narrowly favour Dutton, Roy Morgan snap polling from Wednesday shows.”

Nor is the hard right program designed to curry favour with the Liberal party’s big business base – except for Murdoch. The hard right sabotaged the national energy guarantee that big business saw as a prerequisite for “certainty” for the energy industry. 

They proposed cuts to immigration, while most CEOs in Australia favour high immigration. Dutton was happy to jettison corporate tax cuts which he had until days previously championed. He promised that he would exempt electricity bills from the GST, to the alarm of Treasury. As the clusterfuck in Canberra rolled on day after day and the dollar sank as overseas investors took fright, the Business Council tore its hair out at the economic costs of the political turmoil. 

No matter. The hard right’s aim is to win control over the party.

If it allows the right to grab votes off One Nation in Queensland and LNP MPs hang on to their seats there, they can consolidate their forces in opposition and purge their opponents to transform the entire party in their image.

With Morrison’s victory in the leadership spill, the tensions between the two factions may subside for a period. However, there is no guarantee this will last. 

Hard right MPs will have hardened up their core supporters in the caucus through the leadership fight, and there is no love for Morrison, who they see as a rat for backing Turnbull against Abbott in the 2015 leadership contest.

If the fight flares again, before or after the next federal election, there could be significant ramifications for Australian politics. If the right transforms the Liberal Party into a hard right conservative organisation, the entire political field will shift.

It is often noted that politicians are only in it for themselves; that the only thing they care about is winning government at all cost. It’s that opportunistic calculus that leads many to speculate that the hard right in the Liberal Party will always have to compromise, given the unpopularity of its social conservatism. Perhaps.

But we shouldn’t forget that Tony Abbott’s formative political hero was Bob Santamaria, whose Catholic anti-communist drive led to the fateful ALP split in the 1950s. And we shouldn’t forget that, for many in the hard right of politics, US president Donald Trump’s against-the-odds success, driven by unashamed bigotry and take-no-prisoners approach, is considered a model to be emulated.

Could it happen here? The hard right just mobilised half the MPs from Australia’s premier bourgeois party to depose the prime minister. And it did so at a time of relative social peace and prosperity. So the future is anyone’s bet.