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Turnbull-Abbott rivalry reveals Liberals' ideological chasm

  • 01 December 2015

Tony Abbott is now shadowing Malcolm Turnbull and trying to make his life difficult. International and national security has become his point of difference.

Such Abbott-Turnbull conflict may seem like just a re-rerun of the Julia Gillard-Kevin Rudd debacle, but there is one substantial difference. This Liberal conflict is much more ideological.

While Gillard was from the Left and Rudd from the Right, the Labor leadership contest was considerably more about personal ambition and the survival of the government than ideology. In practice there wasn't much policy difference between Gillard and Rudd; they agreed on most things. Consequently the left and the right were fractured and the factions were split during the Labor leadership challenges.

The last few months confirm that the modern Liberals are highly ideological. Turnbull and Abbott, and their supporters, have very different worldviews for leadership rivals within the one party. Their presence as leadership contenders suggests that the Liberals are now a broader church than Labor.

They are also highly factionalised. Turnbull was laughed at when he suggested that was not the case at the NSW state Liberal conference shortly after he became prime minister. The conservatives within the party also have the support of a network of high-profile conservative radio shock-jocks.

Many conservatives do not accept the popular view that Turnbull is centre-right and Abbott is rightwing. Rather they see Turnbull as centre-left, an interloper, and Abbott as centre-right, a traditional Liberal leader. My in-tray includes the following examples from aggrieved conservatives:

'I see Turnbull as the Libs moving well and truly to the left — and in effect, a Labour PM.'

'I don't believe Turnbull is a centrist except in economics. I believe that this view is held by progressives who think their causes are centrist but are actually left of centre.'

Finally, correspondence from one conservative commentator argued that Turnbull's chief appeal lies with voters who do not vote Liberal, and concluded: 'The conservative base detests the man.'

This difference between Labor and the Liberals turns Australian political history on its head. It was always Labor that was dogged by splits over policy and full of apparently unbending ideologues, while the Liberals were perceived as practical managers. Political science text said that Labor had ideological factions while the Liberals merely had personality-driven 'tendencies'. That is no longer the case.

Ideological conflict will continue unabated within the Liberals. The government is committed to two big public debates during its next term: a referendum on