08/02/2012 - 10:37

Liberal rivalries fester behind closed doors

08/02/2012 - 10:37


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The future of the Liberal Party could be on the line at next year’s election.

The future of the Liberal Party could be on the line at next year’s election.

ALTHOUGH only time will tell if Tony Abbott is destined to save Australia from suicidal Greens-inspired economic stupidity, one thing we already know is that he saved the Liberal Party from extinction.

The Liberal Party, founded during World War II – as the Japanese threat was ebbing and the global Communist threat gathered pace – can be considered Australia’s most successful political force.

One downside of this enviable record is that it is difficult to imagine Australia’s political scene without the Liberal Party.

Difficult it may be, but a precedent for demise exists, and few realise that the Liberal Party has twice stumbled in that direction since 1944.

Without identifying anyone I can report that, over the latter months of the Whitlam Labor government (late 1975), and the opening ones of the Fraser government (early 1976), I was in regular contact with a Liberal who first became an ardent anti-Labor figure in the dying days of the United Australia Party (UAP), precursor of the Liberal Party.

And he, quite unambiguously, outlined to me that one of the little-appreciated motivating factors for devising plans to have the Whitlam government constitutionally dismissed, ‘no matter what’, was fear that the Liberal Party would be destroyed.

Never forget, Mr Whitlam destroyed the Democratic Labor Party in 1974 (until its backers had something to cheer when, in 2010, it regained a Canberra representative, Victorian Senator John Madigan.

Remember also that Mr Whitlam’s ‘crash through or crash’ blueprint first and foremost sought to crash through. 

My contact was, therefore, not bluffing or being flippant.

And he was well placed both in the early 1940s and mid-1970s to know and be able to make that assessment, and confidentially speak about both to someone he trusted.

An interesting question today is, has the standard bearer of Australia’s anti-Labor forces ever come to, or even approached demise, since 1975?

I’ll answer this by briefly recounting what another in-the-know Liberal conveyed about his party’s December 2009 leadership switch from Malcolm Turnbull to Mr Abbott.

The first thing that needs recalling about that switch is that it happened by just one vote.

At the time, and for some time after that change, I’d claimed that Mr Abbott had become leader by his own vote.

But when saying this, my in-the-know Liberal contact disagreed and instead identified another MP, adding – “It was his [that other MP, whom he named] vote that was the crucial difference.”

Who was this MP and why was his vote the crucial one?

The opening scene of this saga is the fact that the Canberra electoral office of every Liberal MP was inundated with hundreds of telephone calls, letters, and emails, urging them to oppose the Rudd-Gillard-Greens CO2 tax.

Scene two featured Liberal leader Mr Turnbull saying: ‘It’s my way or the highway’, meaning he’d be going all the way with the government on the tax.

Several Liberal frontbenchers resigned their positions on this news.

All this was well publicised.

But there was also the little-known scene three, one that only two people fully witnessed and very few know the details of.

One senior Liberal MP with years of experience in dealing with party members and branches knew the Liberal Party would be finished without the essential ingredient of branch members.

He began by first establishing that the enormous number of messages to Liberal MPs’ offices opposing the CO2 tax were genuine, not an organised or staged campaign.

On confirming that a real rank-and-file rebellion existed, he concluded the party’s parliamentary wing must change course – veer to starboard, away from the Rudd-Gillard-Greens policy – otherwise the Liberal Party was dead in the water within a year or two.

So this MP went straight to Mr Turnbull’s office to explain the gravity of the situation: the party was literally on the brink of imploding, he said. Change was essential.

I’m not sure how long this pivotal meeting lasted, but I know that Mr Turnbull told the MP his position was non-negotiable.

So, as that MP departed Mr Turnbull’s office, he’d already decided to change his vote from Turnbull to Abbott.

That MP, it’s been put to me, concluded that Mr Turnbull wasn’t equipped to lead the then 65-year-old party because of his ‘it’s my way or the highway’ stance.

Clearly, if he hadn’t changed his vote Mr Turnbull would have remained leader.

But what would he have been leading?

A bitterly divided parliamentary wing, with thousands of members Australia-wide, including especially large and sizeable donors, deserting the party Robert Menzies created.

At the next election, due in 2010, there would have been no Liberal loyalists manning the polling booths.

So, no money, no, or very few, branches, no polling booth manned ... I think that conveys the message.

A Turnbull-led rump would have gone into the 2010 campaign having transformed the Liberal Party into a me-too Rudd-Greens party.

Quite frankly, it’s anyone’s guess on what the final washed-up wreck would now look like.

Perhaps two Liberal parties would have coexisted under one banner. 

Perhaps some within the non-Turnbull party would have teamed-up with the Nationals. We don’t know because it never came to that.

And the reason is that one crucial MP who’d visited Mr Turnbull’s office changed his mind during their meeting, thereby swinging things towards Mr Abbott.

And in the process that MP pulled the party back from the brink – from disintegrating – from becoming a demoralised entity, and thus an ordeal that had been visited upon the UAP in the early 1940s.

It’s unlikely the conditions for such a split, such a demise will occur again.

But that’s a qualified answer because I note that, several months ago, a long biographical feature article appeared in a national newspaper’s glossy magazine focusing upon Mr Abbott’s chief-of-staff, Peta Credlin, wife of the Liberal Party’s national director, Brian Loughnane.

What was interesting about that article was the enormous quantity of extremely detailed information on Ms Credlin, suggesting the writer was briefed by truly in-the-know people, probably from deep within the Liberal Party.

Nor was the article’s headline complimentary.

My informants say many within the party still harbour deep grudges, not only against Mr Abbott, but also against Mr Loughnane and Ms Credlin since she, before and during the Abbott-Turnbull change-over, had been Mr Turnbull’s chief-of-staff.

Mr Loughnane, it should be recalled, initiated those devastating ‘Kevin O’Lemon’ TV advertisements that promptly convinced Labor’s factional chiefs that Mr Rudd must go.

Some within the Liberal Party believe Mr Loughnane helped re-run a similar operation in removing Mr Turnbull.

And the losers have neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Should Mr Abbott lose election 2013 – so be denied the chance to save Australia from the Greens-inspired economic stupidity – those grudges within the Liberal Party’s Rudd-Greens wing could well re-surface.

After that, it’s anyone’s guess with even a revisit to the early 1940s when Australia’s then pre-eminent anti-Labor Party, the UAP, vanished from the national political stage.



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