Audio: Stephen O’Doherty talks with Bruce Baird and Lyle Shelton
The Turnbull Government marked its first anniversary with an escalation in the hostility between the moderates and the conservatives. Christopher Pyne’s boasting about the ascendancy of the moderate faction, at Sydney Casino’s Cherry Bar after a Liberal Federal Council meeting, brought the divisions in the parliamentary team to a new level of public notice.
He later apologised, particularly for remarks that directly countered the party’s official position on same-sex marriage: that a plebiscite should be held on the issue. In a secret recording of the private event, Pyne can be heard suggesting that same-sex marriage could, in fact, become law in the next session of Parliament.
The same-sex marriage issue is one of a number of moral issues at the heart of deepening divisions between the left and right of the Liberal Party. The division has already led to one liberal parliamentarian – Cory Bernadi – leaving the Liberals to establish new party The Australian Conservatives.
Former leader Tony Abbott is openly capitalising on the division. His own comments at a supporter function, deeply critical of the party’s leadership and budget strategy were also leaked to the media.
A prominent conservative, Mr Abbott’s comments on party reform have also widely been interpreted as a rallying call for a conservative come-back in the NSW branch, the branch currently controlled by the moderate faction of which Mr Turnbull is a member.
Clearly, Tony Abbott is still harbouring great hurt from being ousted as the Prime Minister by Malcolm Turnbull before the last election.
It would be too simple however to assume that Mr Abbott is simply positioning for a leadership challenge.
Former Liberal Senator Cory Bernadi is slowly building a base among former Coalition supporters.
He reportedly has branch numbers that could make the Australian Conservatives a significant headache for the Liberal National Coalition Government at the next election.
The Liberal Party has always been described as a ‘broad church’, with conservatives and liberals generally sharing similar political philosophies.
But with the divisions between the moderate left and the conservative right becoming more pronounced, particularly in relation to moral issues such as same-sex marriage, are we seeing the start of a more profound and permanent division? Could we indeed be seeing something akin to the great Labor split in the 1950’s, also characterised by strong religious differences?
The Liberal party’s dilemma and the reason that the pro-same-sex-marriage faction needs to be very careful is underlined by the recent decision by the conservative Australian Christian Lobby to distribute pamphlets directly against Christopher Pyne’s comments in his own electorate.
On Open House we explored this issue in some depth with Bruce Baird, a moderate and recent Liberal Vice President, and Lyle Shelton, Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby.