“He’s the best Labor leader the Liberals ever had,” was how one influential member of the Victorian Liberal Party described Malcolm Turnbull Monday morning.
Across the party, conservatives were enjoying the prime minister’s discomfort at being forced to acknowledge that the House of Representatives doesn’t support his signature policy.
Even though he is more popular than Labor leader Bill Shorten and led the Coalition to victory in 2016, many influential party members, including donors, faction leaders and federal and state MPs, see Turnbull as political interloper.
Many resent his liberalism on the republic. Others are uncomfortable with his support for same-sex marriage. Some wish he would be more critical of institutions they perceive to be bastians of the left, including the ABC.
Powerful belief system
But no issue may better explain the conservatives suspicion of Turnbull than global warming. The prime minister’s plan to cross-subsidise wind farms, solar panels and other forms of renewable energy through the national energy guarantee has run into one of the most powerful belief systems among many Liberal Party members: that climate change may be exaggerated.
“Essentially this is a Labor right policy position,” the Victorian Liberal says.
The scepticism, which is fuelled by conservative media outlets, feeds upwards. At least half the federal Liberal MPs aren’t convinced that human activity is creating permanent atmospheric warming, according to Institute of Public Affairs executive director and prominent Victorian Liberal John Roskam.
“More than 50 per cent are solid sceptics and more than 50 per cent feel they need to be seen to do something,” he said last year. “The science is not settled.”
Turnbull’s conservative opponents, including predecessor Tony Abbott, use Turnbull’s commitment to lower carbon dioxide emissions to undermine his support among party members, which in turn weakens the loyalty of Liberals MPs. Wary of losing their party endorsement, most MPs are acutely sensitive to branch members’ views.
“He’s a left-leaning inner-city progressive trying to lead a centre-right party,” one party member and Abbott supporter in Melbourne said on Monday.
Web sites such as stopturnbull.com and social media accounts like @bringbackabbott reinforce the message.
Labor Senate ticket
To reinforce the argument that their party leader is too centrist, some Liberals on Sunday and Monday drew attention to a column by former Labor minister Graham Richardson.
“How the Liberal Party ever thought that a person who had sat in my office in the early 1990s and begged to be placed on the Labor Senate ticket could ever be a true Liberal, let alone lead the party, is beyond me,” he wrote on the weekend.
The truth of Richardson’s assertion is difficult to assess, although stories of an early Labor flirtation were mentioned in Turnbull’s unauthorised biography, Born to Rule. Then again, as a Labor loyalist Richardson has an incentive to portray Turnbull as an opportunist.
Whatever his political uncertainty as a young man, Turnbull has benefited within the Liberal Party from the backing of a conservative icon, John Howard.
In addition to public expressions of support for Turnbull, the former prime minister has advised several ministers who considered resigning over the national energy guarantee to stay in the government, party sources said.
Howard appears to have operated as a behind-the-scenes stabiliser for the Turnbull Government by offering advice to ministers concerned about its progress.
He operates as a mentor for senior Liberals around the country, including new South Australian premier Steven Marshall.
Abbott, a minister under Howard, is acutely aware of his former patron’s support for the man who removed him as prime minister and kept him on the backbench.
Abbott seems to regard Howard’s actions as a repudiation of the conservative cause. Howard, who helped make Turnbull’s career, argues he is demonstrating loyalty to the party leader, as he did when Abbott held the position, and helping the Coalition stay in power.
Some conservatives say the cost is too high. Still angry at Turnbull’s ascension in 2015, they would prefer to be in opposition under a conservative than in government under Turnbull.
The way the polls are going, they may get their wish.