Cabinet rushes to Malcolm Turnbull’s defence


The federal cabinet has rallied around Malcolm Turnbull following the Prime Minister’s push to reclaim the Liberal Party’s ideological direction, but influential political consultant Sir Lynton Crosby weighed into the debate saying the party is consumed with internal battles that voters do not care about.

“It’s who you govern for rather than what you call yourself that’s most important,” Sir Lynton said at an Australian British Chamber of Commerce lunch on Tuesday when asked about Mr Turnbull’s remarks. “The most powerful thing about the Liberal Party is the way [Sir Robert] Menzies described the people he was seeking to represent.”


Turnbull’s swipe at Tony

While giving a speech in London, Malcolm Turnbull has criticised Tony Abbott and other conservatives, saying the Liberal Party should sit in the sensible centre.

As the conflict between the moderate and conservative Liberal wings dominates the news, Sir Lynton, a founder of the political strategy and pollster firm Crosby-Textor, said research showed Australian voters were not moved by ideology or even policy alone. “[Australian] voters are themselves largely not ideological,” he told the lunch in Sydney.

“They reward you for having the right values and demonstrating your values and policies are relevant to your concerns.”

His comments come a day after Mr Turnbull defended his government’s centrist budget as historically consistent with the party and the tradition of Sir Robert’s leadership.

“We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party,” Mr Turnbull said in a major speech in London interpreted as an attack on former prime minister Tony Abbott.

“[Sir Robert] described our party as the Liberal Party, which he firmly anchored in the centre.”

But Sir Lynton said the party should focus on its key messages, values and voters, to an audience that included key Liberal powerbrokers such as Assistant Minister Alex Hawke and lobbyist Michael Photios.

He listed “reward for effort”, a “fair go”, an “opportunity to better [voters’] lives” by not being penalised by “excessive taxation” as the values that the Liberals should reflect.

Former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett accused Mr Turnbull of an “appalling lack of political judgment” for delivering the speech, but conservative and moderate cabinet ministers – led by Julie Bishop, Josh Frydenberg and Christopher Pyne – backed the Prime Minister.

Ms Bishop said Mr Turnbull’s observations were consistent with Sir Robert and the “broad church” once described by former prime minister John Howard. “It very eloquently articulates our values as the Liberal Party,” she said, adding that it should not antagonise the party’s conservative base.

Conservative cabinet minister Josh Frydenberg – who was a close ally of Tony Abbott when he was prime minister – described the speech as “considered and powerful” and its characterisation of the party’s philosophical underpinnings as “absolutely right”.

Mr Abbott did not respond to a request for comment. Other influential conservatives contacted by Fairfax Media declined to comment.

Mr Pyne said the Liberal Party was made up of liberals and conservatives. “It’s what’s given us our electoral success,” the moderate Liberal said. “It’s why the Australian public have trusted us more often than not with the government of the country over the socialism of the Labor Party.”

Even Liberal senator Eric Abetz, one of the party’s most prominent conservatives, defended Mr Turnbull’s speech and said “hysterical media have decided to dishonestly spin the speech in such a way to inflame tensions”.

“The Liberal Party is and has always been a train running on small-l liberal and conservative tracks – unless both are tended to, the whole train will derail,” Mr Abetz said.

But Mr Kennett said he was so disillusioned about the state of the party under Mr Turnbull that he wanted to drink whisky before 9am. “This latest point he has made in London seems to me to be an appalling lack of political judgment,” Mr Kennett told ABC radio. “Why would you do it? Why would you do it from overseas? Why would you throw a can of petrol onto a fire?”

New Liberal Party president Nick Greiner criticised Mr Abbott’s alternative policy agenda – which he outlined earlier this month – as impossible to implement and said his interventions were damaging the government in the polls. He agreed with Mr Turnbull that “the sensible centre is the place to be”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Mr Turnbull was navel-gazing.

“Mr Turnbull is having an identity crisis, debating whether he is a liberal or a conservative. But what is beyond doubt is that he is not a leader. What everyone knows is this a government lacking leadership,” he said.

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