Conservatives will destroy the Liberal village to save it

The sight of the smouldering ruins of the Liberals’ Wentworth by-election campaign sends an unmistakeable signal to those party members willing to receive it. Yet the early indications are that there will be no policy shifts on matters of concern to the Australian people such as climate change and wages growth. 

Wise Liberals know the Coalition needs to adjust its policies to have any hope of winning the next election. But if they try to shift, they also know they will face fierce resistance from the conservative faction of the Liberal Party. 

This helps explain why on Sunday Treasurer Frydenberg – until a few weeks ago a champion of the since-discarded National Energy Guarantee – indicated there would be no material change to the government’s energy policy (whatever it is). Frydenberg knew that if he even hinted at placing greater emphasis on emission reductions, he would have Tony Abbott, Craig Kelly, Alan Jones and the Liberal Party’s conservative commentators on Sky After Dark agitating for his removal. 

When, on Sunday leading moderate, Craig Laundy, a staunch Turnbull supporter, told Fairfax his colleagues should ignore Sky After Dark’s Liberal commentators, conservative NSW Liberal John Ruddick attacked him on Twitter as an “idiot”. 

Laundy had the temerity to point out that the Muslim voters his electorate did not see the funny side of Morrison’s pivot towards relocating the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a decision that went neither to Cabinet nor to its National Security Committee. Yet Morrison, ever the marketing man, assured us his captain’s call had nothing to do with the Wentworth by-election, despite the suggestion coming from the Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma. 

Both Liberal-held seats of Reid and Banks are gone if the conservatives prevail on Morrison to stick with his Jerusalem decision. So, too, is the completed free-trade agreement with Indonesia that Julia Gillard and I launched in 2012. Again, Morrison assured us the Indonesian government was unperturbed by his Jerusalem announcement, despite being aware of an explosive reaction on WhatsApp from the country’s foreign minister, describing it as a slap in the face for Indonesia that will “affect bilateral relations.” 

Instead of blaming the Wentworth result on Malcolm Turnbull, the Morrison government should make several policy changes if it is to be competitive at the next election. First the Jerusalem fiasco must be reversed immediately, together with the proposal to follow Donald Trump on the Iran deal. Conservative Liberals might admire Trump but the Australian people do not.

Next, the government should reject the advice of Sky After Dark that climate change is an elaborate hoax and develop a credible emissions-reduction policy. If it refuses to do so, then safer seats such as Higgins, Brisbane, Boothby and even Cowper will come into play for progressive parties or independents. So, too, will Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah, which is already being eyed by high-profile independents.

Next, the government should pull out of its decision to join the argument in the Fair Work Commission in the case of casuals seeking improved working conditions. Whatever the merits of deficiencies of the case, does the government really need to position itself yet again as an opponent of wage rises?

To combat the perception of an unstable government that has lost control of the parliament, Morrison should reach out to Labor this week and come to an agreement to get sick children off Nauru. As border protection minister, Morrison, and his successor, Peter Dutton, have told us that an armada of Australian naval vessels continues to be an effective deterrent to boats carrying asylum seekers. Labor supports the turn-back policy. It is not necessary to brutalise kids on Nauru to discourage asylum seekers. 

Next, the government should reposition on live sheep exports and support the bill developed by its own Sussan Ley, which enjoys the support of Labor, the Greens and several independents, to phase out the trade over five years. It is, however, unlikely to do so, because Barnaby Joyce would use the parliamentary vote against his rival, Michael McCormack, in his bid to return to the Deputy Prime Ministership.

These reactions from the conservative wing of the Coalition illustrate the shackles on the Morrison government if it makes any attempt to move towards the centre. Morrison will continue to market himself as a daggy good guy but his conservative colleagues will oblige him to embrace the policies of the Hard Right. If he tries to shift they will destroy the Liberal Party village in order to save it. Again. Labor couldn’t be happier.