The tensions in the Liberal Party are deepening, with Tony Abbott launching a new broadside on Tuesday and Malcolm Turnbull slamming the door on a Liberal backbench attempt to resolve same-sex marriage before the election.
With the government’s polling stuck in the doldrums, Abbott homed in on Turnbull’s move to the centre, declaring that “the next election won’t be won by drawing closer to Labor” but could “only be won by drawing up new battlelines that give our people something to fight for, and the public something to hope for”.
In his speech to the Institute of Public Affairs in Brisbane, Abbott cast himself as a central conservative flag-carrier.
“I can assure you, I’m in no hurry to leave public life because we need strong liberal conservative voices now, more than ever. I will do my best to be a standard-bearer for the values and the policies that have made us strong,” he said.
“We need to make Australia work again – because our country, plainly, is not working as it should.”
Abbott’s second major public intervention this week prompted one radio interviewer to ask Turnbull whether his leadership was under threat from the former prime minister. “Absolutely not,” Turnbull said.
With cabinet minister Christopher Pyne’s leaked comment that same-sex marriage might come “sooner than everyone thinks” causing new ructions, Turnbull delivered a blunt message to Liberal backbenchers who have been working on a private member’s bill.
“We will not support a vote on gay marriage in the parliament until there has been a plebiscite,” he said. When it was put to him, “so you wouldn’t allow a private member’s bill to be presented?”, he replied: “Correct. That is our position.” He did not rule out taking a different policy into the election.
Despite Turnbull’s firm line, Liberal sources said pressure would continue in the party to have the issue settled this term. They cited pressure from the electorate, including from some church people who, while against a change, said they would prefer – if it were going to come – that it be delivered by a Liberal government than a Labor one.
The ABC reported on Tuesday night that Pyne has been ringing MPs to dampen an angry backlash against his leaked comments, which included boasting the moderates were “in the winner’s circle”, a line particularly infuriating critics. Pyne had been speaking on Friday to a gathering of moderates and their supporters.
Abbott reprised and updated his earlier policy and political manifesto, which included calls for a crackdown on renewables, a curb on immigration, and drastic reform of the Senate.
He attacked the Finkel report’s energy plan, and took a swipe at last week’s schools package, which Turnbull hopes will reduce Labor’s usual advantage in this area.
“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,” 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.”
He also appeared sceptical about the Turnbull government’s emphasis on fairness. “Governments have to be fair – but there’s only so much fairness that you can pay for with other people’s money.”
He urged a “jobs-first” power policy: “a declaration that energy policy aims to reduce cost-of-living pressures, preserve jobs and keep industries competitive – and that these objectives have priority over reducing emissions”.
“A government that’s serious about keeping the lights on should get another big coal-fired power station into action as soon as possible – and be prepared to ‘go it alone’ if political risk means the market won’t do it.”
Criticising the Finkel clean energy target plan, he said that maintaining Labor would increase power prices and the Coalition would lower them would be much harder “if our renewable energy target goes from 23% to 42%, as flagged in Finkel”.
According to Abbott, “all recent governments have deferred too much to political correctness – my own included – while the public have become impatient for robust common sense”.
Arguing for a “big slowdown in immigration” on economic and assimilation grounds, he said it would “reassure Australians that our country is in our own hands and is being run in our best interests”.
“Of course it would provoke a fierce fight with Labor – that, again, would just emphasise who’s on Australians’ side and who’s not”.
Meanwhile, Bill Shorten on Tuesday pledged that if Labor won the next election it would restore the Sunday penalty rates “of every single worker” affected by the cut made by the Fair Work Commission.
“And we will change the law – to protect the take-home pay of working Australians into the future,” he told the ACTU’s 90th anniversary dinner in Sydney.
“That will be the choice at the next election – a Liberal Party offering a tax cut for millionaires and multinationals, and a wage cut for workers. And a Labor Party more determined than ever to stand up for a fairer tax system, and to fight every day to protect the pay and conditions of working Australians.”
The phasing in of the Sunday penalty rates cuts starts on July 1. The cuts affect hospitality, retail, fast-food and pharmacy workers.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra