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Turnbull prays for broad Liberal church

by
July 13, 2017

The prime minister has sought to use a speech in London to map out the future of the Liberal Party.

Factionalism is alive and well in the Liberal Party.

But the factions themselves are fractured almost beyond identification.

The Liberal Party's factions have historically been identified as "wets" and "dries", or "moderates" and "conservatives".

Some MPs and grassroots members embrace the label "conservative" with all the passion of their UK equivalents.

The moderates are less likely to use their label, but more often call themselves "pragmatic" or "progressive".

Malcolm Turnbull sought to use a speech in London this week to map out where he sits and how he sees the Liberal Party.

However, the leaked paragraphs of the speech offered a blunt point out of context (for the newspapers which received the handout) and became quickly caught up in the quagmire that is the Turnbull-Abbott leadership cold war.

Turnbull was trying to say the party can have its differences of opinion on things like social policy and how far to go on economic and budget reform.

But the party comes together, as founder Sir Robert Menzies said, under the name "Liberal ... because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea."

He noted Abbott had spoken about the "sensible centre".

But the former prime minister failed to demonstrate it in practice.

Voters reacted sharply to Abbott's "knights and dames" decision and the harsh measures in the 2014 budget.

And while his decision to roll out a plebiscite on same-sex marriage is now popular after being embraced by Turnbull, it was initially seen as a way of kicking the issue down the road and giving political cover for social conservatives to argue against the law change.

Coalition MPs are now more likely to factionalise around regional and state interests, or issues such as climate change, than ideology.

Queensland members routinely meet when parliament is sitting to talk about taking a united view on certain issues and even projects that require funding.

South Australian members have the ear of the prime minister via Christopher Pyne, who as defence industry minister has a multi-billion-dollar bucket of money to throw around and has been staunch in arguing to protect steel jobs.

Turnbull has used SA's energy crisis as a political weapon in his bid to cobble together a climate policy by another name - aimed at pushing down power prices, making energy more reliable while cutting emissions.

There are also groupings around personalities, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Treasurer Scott Morrison enjoying a certain level of popular support but not enough to swing the leadership at this point.

While some Liberals delight in working the numbers within the party and seeking to seize the advantage, others are happy to get on with the daily drudge of electorate work - seeking pragmatic answers to voters' concerns.

Some party veterans like Tasmania's Eric Abetz are adamant it needs the two "rails".

"The Liberal Party is and has always been a train running on small-l liberal and conservative tracks - unless both are tended to the whole train will derail," he says.

Without giving space for economic dries and social conservatives, voters will go elsewhere - and they are.

Pauline Hanson's One Nation and Cory Bernardi's Australian Conservatives are capitalising on the rise of the small-l liberals championed by Turnbull.

Labor is the beneficiary of this, not only because voters see a divided Liberal Party but One Nation preferences have tended to naturally split evenly between Labor and the Liberals.

Unfortunately for Turnbull, who has trailed in the polls since September last year, he's about to see another public outbreak of factionalism.

The NSW division's party futures convention towards the end of July will debate changing the rules governing the way candidates and party officials are elected.

Abbott and junior minister Angus Taylor lead a group seeking greater democracy, to whittle away at the power of the party organisation's moderate elite.

Turnbull wants change, but not in the way Abbott is proposing and the final outcome will be a compromise of which direction to take to greater democratisation.

The prime minister will be hoping the party can unify around the final result, but that hope may be undermined by a fraction too much faction.

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