Fisticuffs in the Aussie Liberal Party!

Aussie politics was rocked last night by an enormous internecine battle over the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – the Australian government’s big climate change bill.

Here’s what happened.

The ruling Labor Party doesn’t hold the balance of power in the Senate – they need their own votes, plus the votes of another seven senators, to enact any legislation. For whatever idiot reason, the dope-smokers in the Green Party have refused to support the CPRS (probably some pissy little gripe about not enough subsidies for vegan carbon-neutral socialist single-parent homebirthing), and hard-right Family First Party senator Steve Fielding isn’t going to support anything that doesn’t involve actual crucifixion – so the centre-right Liberal-National Party coalition (the main opposition party) has stepped up to deliver those seven votes.

You’d think that out of 28 Lib-Nat senators, you’d be able to get seven people to vote for the CPRS. If only it were that easy.

Unlike the Grand Old USA, where members can vote their conscience on any piece of legislation, Aussie political parties demand loyalty from their reps. Crossing the floor to vote against your party isn’t unheard of, but it’s very very rare – so the 28 Lib-Nat senate votes will either come as a bloc or not at all. The decision on which way to vote is ultimately made in the party room, and by convention, what the party leader says is what goes.

So last night, Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull went into the Lib-Nat party room, took a look around, said “righto, a majority of the people in here support the CPRS legislation, so we’re going to support it as a party”, and walked out.

And all hell broke loose.

Now, Turnbull’s not a bad bloke. He’s socially liberal, economically conservative, and he’s generally the sort of bloke that a centrist voter could get behind. But his management style – heavy-handed, even a little bit bullying – and his centrist position in an increasingly conservative opposition party have earned him enemies. There’s a significant right-wing faction in the Liberal Party who think Turnbull’s a socialist turncoat, and would love nothing more than to knife him in favour of arch-conservative Tony Abbott. There’s a noisy group of climate-change denialists led by 150-year-old nutcase Wilson Tuckey. And there’s the National Party, which started off as the party for rural and regional Australia, and has since turned into a bunch of whacko agrarian socialists with an enormous collective hard-on for trade barriers and heavy industry and tractors and trailers and seeders and balers and trucks and four-wheel-drives and ploughs.

All of these groups want to kill either the CPRS legislation or Turnbull himself, and last night, they all ganged up to try and roll the guy.

The three-hour party room meeting ran for seven hours. Turnbull variously “stormed out”, “wandered out”, “walked out”, then went back in, then back out. All the while, every journalist from the press gallery was parked outside the party room door – not because they gave a toss about covering the story, but because the Liberal Party’s christmas drinks were supposed to be immediately after the meeting, and have you ever met a journo who doesn’t like free beer?

There was all sorts of talk about a leadership spill leaking around the door of the party room. But after eight hours, Turnbull cleaned the blood off his shirt and stood up in front of a press conference, saying that he had the numbers, and that the coalition would support the CPRS legislation. He also claimed he’d dared the party to force a leadership spill – and nothing had happened. He was celebrating; he’d stared down the right wing of the party and he’d won.

But then this morning, plastered across the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald: THREE QUIT AS TURNBULL CALLS SPILL.

The Liberal Party leadership is open – but Malcolm Turnbull will probably hold on for now. Tony Abbott (who looks like a cross between Damien from The Omen and a Yip Yip) and Joe Hockey (notionally a centrist, Turnbull kind of guy, but plenty of frustrated leadership ambitions) have both declined to run; his only challenger is Kevin Andrews, who’s basically Tony Abbott with better hair (strongly conservative, pro-life, anti-fun). Andrews used to run the Immigration Ministry when the Liberal Party was in power under John Howard, but he mishandled every issue that hit his desk and generally came off as a racist with a taste for detention without trial – so it’s not likely that he’s going to get the votes.

But even if he wins, Turnbull is damaged goods. He’ll nurse the CPRS legislation over the line, even if some senators cross the floor to vote against it, and Australia will have its emissions trading scheme. He’ll be remembered as the man who stared down the right-wingers. But he’ll have pissed off half his party, and all of his National Party coalition partners. He’s not going to be able to make it to the next election (due late next year); the best the Libs can hope for is that the party doesn’t split any further between now and then.

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