Tony Abbott is abusing his privilege as part of his campaign of payback

Tony Abbott is abusing his privilege as part of his campaign of payback source: afr.com
Phillip Coorey:
Something happened in politics this week which, as far as anyone can recall, has not occurred for almost a quarter of a century.

Christopher Pyne apologised.

When it comes to the dark art of internal machinations, the South Australian, elected in 1993, is one of the most accomplished practitioners Parliament has witnessed. Harder to get rid of than Blackberries.

Internally, he has survived the best John Howard and Nick Minchin could throw at him, seen off rivals such as Cory Bernardi and, throughout the leadership tumult which has riven the Liberals since Howard lost the 2007 election, has always landed on his feet. Like a cat.

So, when he apologised on Wednesday for his comments to a private function in Sydney, in which he boasted to fellow moderates about the faction's growing influence and the possibility of a quick resolution to same-sex marriage, it underscored just how serious things have become internally. Had the cat used his nine lives?

The recording and leaking of Pyne's speech was the catalyst for the implosion that followed, not the cause. Despite Malcolm Turnbull's ongoing overtures to the right, be they changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, citizenship or the re-embrace of coal, the conservatives remain paranoid the left is taking over and demand more.

Pyne's boast fuelled their theories and it was made worse because he made his speech in NSW where the Liberal branch is firmly under the control of the moderates and the soft-right.

Emotions are already hypersensitive "and for him to come to my state and make those comments was the final straw" fumed one conservative.

For months, Tony Abbott and other NSW conservatives have been pushing to change the rules so that preselections are conducted by a plebiscite of members, not the easily-stackable mechanism involving a central component and a pool of branch members.

Other state Liberal branches have plebiscites and there is no reason to resist change other than those with the influence don't want to do anything that would threaten it.

There will be a showdown over the rules at a special conference later in July. That will be the next manifestation of the all-but declared open civil war in the Liberal Party.

While all this helps explain the toxic reaction to Pyne's speech, it does not excuse it. Nor does it explain why Pyne felt the need, or was prevailed upon, to apologise, when conservatives, by and large, remain silent while Abbott embarks on a vengeful campaign to destroy the leader, and by extension, the government.

Abbott's two speeches this week were variously disingenuous, revisionist, hypocritical, disloyal and needlessly combative. Yet the best most of his conservative colleagues could offer in response was either silence or to spout that rubbish talking point that Abbott is a backbencher, the Liberal Party is a broad church and backbenchers are free to speak their mind.

What crap. Abbott is abusing that privilege as part of his campaign of payback. He said as much in November last year via his friend and columnist Cate McGregor when he threatened that he would unleash if not given a cabinet spot.

"Being pragmatic, Abbott actually believes that the solidarity imposed upon him by the cabinet is the best insurance against his being deemed a wrecker," she wrote.

Conservative ministers Christian Porter and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells are among those who have found their voice in recent days and highlighted flaws in Abbott's simplistic arguments.

Peter Dutton, in trying to calm things, made the excellent point that Turnbull equally, is often accused of being too far to the right. The right ignores that.

But a larger effort is needed if this is to be contained.

There are young and upcoming members of this government who have never experienced opposition and the demoralising slog required to win government.

Some carry on as if being in power is a given and they can break ranks on policy, destabilise or undermine without consequence. Only when their bums hit the green leather to the left of the Speaker will all this dawn upon them.

The path of self-destruction some have chosen is, in a sense, worse than that Labor trod just a few tears ago when Kevin Rudd adopted the same strategy of wrecking to keep the polls depressed and recovery impossible. But whereas Labor's blue was a vicious personal split between Rudd and Julia Gillard, it was not about policy.

Sure, there were some nuanced differences, such as how soon a fixed carbon price should become a floating price, but no more than that.

The civil war in the Liberal Party is about personal hatred and philosophical differences on policy and direction. The old heart and soul tussle, just as it was in 2009.

It has its own madness and it means that for the next 18 months, the nation, again, faces political and policy paralysis. This further erodes whatever regard the public still has for the political system, which as Scott Morrison noted correctly last weekend, is already next to none.

And for everyone outside of this childish student political brawl, the consequences are grim.

Abbott signalled this week the next battle in the ideological crusade would be to go to war over plans to introduce a Clean Energy Target, the compromise policy recommended by the chief scientist, Alan Finkel, and which the government wants to implement.

Business and industry wants one, Labor is prepared to support it, and unless there is market certainty, the energy crisis, already critical will worsen.

As The Australian Financial Review's Angela Macdonald-Smith revealed on Friday, businesses coming off multi-year contacts signed when power was plentiful are staring at price increases of around 80 per cent, dwarfing the 20 per cent hit to households.

Abbott, who thinks wind farms have driven up gas prices, wants to pick a crippling internal fight over energy policy again. He has supporters in the party.

But business "is beside itself", said one source who liaises with the community on such policy.

"They can see Finkel hitting the wall and they don't know when the next opportunity for bipartisan support will happen again," he said.

"All they can see is Abbott picking another fight with Turnbull on energy and nothing getting done.

"If Turnbull can't do it now, with bipartisan support and [conservative and Energy Minister Josh] Frydenberg driving it through cabinet, we're all stuffed."
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