Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Turnbull-Abbott rivalry reveals Liberals' ideological chasm


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

Cracked blue wallSuch 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 constitutional recognition of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and a plebiscite on same sex marriage.

Depending on the question Turnbull and Abbott may be on the same side on the first one, though some Liberal MPs will split, but they will definitely be on opposite sides on gay marriage. Abbott will lead the charge against same sex marriage and government MPs will be horribly divided. That problem seems not to have been considered when the Abbott government decided on this course of action.

It would appear that Abbott, perhaps emboldened by the Rudd and Turnbull examples, still harbours hopes of a comeback. Both Rudd and Turnbull seemed dead and buried and most likely to leave Parliament altogether at the 2010 elections. Yet they persevered and came back against the odds.

Abbott's chances of a comeback appear very slim at the moment, however, as Turnbull is highly popular and already is being talked about as the strong favourite at the next election.

What Abbott and his conservative allies might realistically do, however, is shape the direction of the Turnbull government. To achieve power, Turnbull made policy and process concessions to the Nationals on water and to some Liberals on climate action and same sex marriage. He may have to make more to keep his hold on it.

Centrist voters are patiently giving him time to move in their direction, while conservative MPs, members and voters dig in to prevent him moving anywhere near the centre.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Eureka Street columnist.

Image: geir tønnessen, Flickr CC

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott



submit a comment

Existing comments

An alternative view to this would place the ideological conflict issue in an historical context. Howard, faced with the right-wing revolt that was one nation, moved his party firmly to the right to incorporate the dissidents. Having done so, the Liberal Party risked losing its progressive element. The extremities of the Abbot led right have created greater strength in progressive liberalism. The Labor Party on the other hand has reconciled itself to having a permanent alternative party on the left in the Greens in order to occupy the centre. Uncomfortable for progressive members of the party. In the end the Labour party strategy may prove the most workable in that it allows maximum flexibility - form alliance of convenience with the Greens on an issue by issue basis.

Tom Keating | 01 December 2015  

When a political party seeks membership from and the electoral support of 50% or a little more (for victory) of the population, as is the case with the two "major" parties in Australia, it is inevitable that their membership -- the world-vies and values, as well as attitudes towards tactic -- will be heterogeneous. This has led to two major "splits" in the ALP (over conscription in World War I and over anti-Communism and the influence of the Catholic Church after World War II). By contrast, until Menzies' pragmatic compromise in the 1940s, the Australian parties of the "Right" were traditionally fractured and hostile and bore a variety of names which they hoped would be electorally expedient. When John Howard became PM, the dominance of Victoria (the so-called "Liberal Deakinites" lost their control of the party to the hard "Free Traders" from Sydney. Abbott belings to the latter faction; Turnbull (essentially) to the former, residential geography notwithstanding . Those hard-line Conservatives, having (for the moment surrendered power) are not relishing the situation. Their equivalent in the ALP (the "Right") have never lost power -- there has never been a Left-wing PM in Australia and Julia Gillard should NOT be described as "from the Left". Politics is always about the contestation of power, but that cannot happen without ego and enormous self-belief. How else can politicians survive when EVERYTHING that they do is (at least potentially) in public. Turnbull's ego is no smaller than Rudd's (and has, likewise, made him many enemies). Ideology, ego and the ambition for power is, eternally, the melange of politics.

Dr John Carmody | 01 December 2015  

Any analysis needs to take into account the deep, visceral dislike of Abbott in the electorate. He made the country a laughing stock overseas; the lesson of his friend Harpur in Canada should be a warning. One further thought: what are the chances of a new Labor party led by Turnbull? Not possible, I suppose and I don't know Australian history well enough to ask whether something similar happened with Hughes, Lyons, Menzies.

Frank | 01 December 2015  

Tony abbott is suffering from sour grapes in mouth disease.

maria fatarella | 01 December 2015  

I think the ALP does have ideological splits - you see it when the membership elects a President of the Party - usually more 'left' than the MPs, or when the membership went for Albo and the MPs for Shorten. If the membership were really given a voice we too might end up with a Corbyn leading the ALP. The ALP started the confusion of left and right by moving so far right under Hawke & Keating. It moved the centre and allowed Howard to go much further right.

Russell | 01 December 2015  

Rodney Cavalier, Labor Historian, "On objective criteria, Robert Gordon Menzies was well to the left of any minister in Contemporary Labor governments. Menzies believed in high rates of tax for high income earners, pump-priming the economy, public ownership of telephones, airlines and banks, centralised wage fixing, legislated protection of union rights and the right to bargain collectively" The ground has shifted a lot and Howard's renovations and extensions of the right wing paved the way for Abbott's appeals to even baser sentiments in the Oz population. In that landscape anything more considered, reasoned, inclusive or humane will look like a move to the left-as if there is anything left of the Left these days. But as big business buys the best government they can get from both parties, the gap between the rich and poor widens and the press pumps out Murdoctrine what can we expect?

Michael D. Breen | 01 December 2015  

Tony Abbott's pronouncements on his prime ministership only today demonstrate either a dogged determination to maintain the facade that Sir Tony's castle walls are still intact - or a complete lack of any self-awareness whatsoever. Evidence is increasingly suggesting the latter. It seems that everything that went wrong with his government was someone else's fault - Labor, the media (especially Their ABC and Fairfax), the recalcitrant Senate, environmentalist vandals, white-anters in his own party. But the erratic decision-making of his government, too often driven by personal eccentricity and whim, that was making the Whitlam Government look almost stable and disciplined by comparison? Nah! Did people start distrusting the "Budget Emergency" chants when Abbott's own mismanagement of the economy created a "Debt and Deficit Disaster" that dwarfed Labor's contribution? Nah! What about the never-ending dramatics that made the vast majority of the Australian population breathe a loud collective sigh of relief at Abbott's departure? Nah! So, just where is this clamour from any of this vast majority to ever hear anything from Abbott again, much less resume any position of leadership? Yet he and the loony right think he's on the way back? Nah!

PaulM | 01 December 2015  

Always good to read Prof Warhurst's analysis of what is going on inside the main political parties in Australia. I presume constraints of space prevented him discussing the influence the National Party has on the internal workings of the Liberal Party. Perhaps no National Party leader since Black Jack McEwen has wagged the political tail on the Coalition dog so adroitly but wag it they all did to some extent, and the current leader Warren Truss still tries to do his share of wagging too. Some Liberals might say we don't need a right wing, the Nationals do that for us in the electorate. Others might say we do need a right wing within the Liberal Party so we do not become beholden to the agrarian socialist tendencies of the National Party. All very interesting!

Uncle Pat | 02 December 2015  

The news that Ian MacFarlane of the Liberal Party has made overtures to the National Party to become a member has set me thinking. How many more anti-Turnbull members are there in the Liberal Party who remain there only so long as they think the might score a ministerial job? Looks like ambition can make a defector of any disgruntled politician. Would there be room for Tony Abbott in the National Party?

Uncle Pat | 03 December 2015  

Similar Articles

No alarms and no opinions

  • Ellena Savage
  • 04 December 2015

In November I did not change my profile picture to a European flag. I did not post a link to a fresh journalistic insight into a gang of men with machetes who are desperate to feel relevant in the empty ravine of history. I felt mild joy for Myanmar, but if I am honest, I don't know enough about Myanmar. I felt indignant that no-one changed their profile pictures to the Mali flag after 170 people were taken hostage there. Then my indignation dissolved when I realised I didn't know what the Mali flag looked like.


Excluding abortion protestors is a matter of dignity

  • Fatima Measham
  • 04 December 2015

Last Friday, Victoria passed an amendment to establish a protest-free zone around abortion clinics. I find it impossible to reconcile with the idea that personhood in utero depends on whether a baby is wanted or unwanted, but I also believe bodily autonomy is integral to the dignity of women. There is such a long history of women being deprived of agency across political, economic, social, sexual and cultural dimensions, that being able to make a choice carries its own compelling morality.