Is the Wentworth candidate throwing sops to hostile audiences – or has he rediscovered a key principal of Australian Liberalism?
In the storm over Malcolm Turnbull’s alleged comments over Iraq,
reconciliation and political fundraising in Bondi on Monday night,
let’s not forget one vital fact – the Wentworth candidate is standing
up for the very best traditions of the Liberal Party.

Grab a copy of the Penguin Macquarie Dictionary of Australian Politics and look up “Pledge”. Here’s what you’ll find:

“The written undertaking made by a Labor member of
parliament not to vote in parliament as decided by a majority of
caucus… See also Party Discipline.”

Here’s an extract from that second entry:

“The Australian Labor Party enforces discipline by means of
a formal pledge, which includes the promise to carry out the principles
embodies in the party’s platform and on all questions before parliament
to vote as decided by the majority of caucus…” In comparison,
it points out how the Liberal Party’s equivalent “permits members not
to vote along the party line”.

Indeed. Labor introduced the pledge over 100 years ago, insisting
its members and candidates obey a party line. It split the
colonial Labor parties and became a crucial point of difference between
Labor and the Liberal’s predecessors. Many prominent figures of
the day resented the imposition and left their party. Many
sacrificed their careers.

The Liberals and their predecessors have made much about this
difference, about the freedom of conscience their parliamentarians have
enjoyed – until recently.

Robert Hill, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Defence,
crossed the floor several times in his early days. Phillip
Ruddock did so in the eighties, too – over immigration, believe it or
not. They still ended up in key frontbench roles.

Now, as Cabinet Ministers, of course, they no longer have that
right. They are bound by Cabinet decisions. They are
morally obliged to resign if they disagree with Cabinet decisions –
although we know how much morality figures in Howard Government
decisions and how Hill, Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone, Joe Hockey, Chris
Pyne and the other hypocrites who once paraded themselves as the social
consciences of the Liberal Party have traded in their souls in exchange
from the magical – if ironical – title “Honourable” and jobs as
ministers or parliamentary secretaries.

The Howard Government has become infamous for its control freakery, for
its muzzling and manipulation just of its own MPs – contrary to a once
proud party tradition – but also for the political manipulation of the
supposedly independent Public Service and, even more disturbingly, the
defence forces that should be above day-to-day politicking. Kids
Overboard, anyone?

Still, some brave MPs buck this tradition. Petro Georgiou, the
Member for Kooyong, is a prime example. He has paid. He is
a former prime ministerial adviser and, as state director of the party
in Victoria, helped keep a leash on some of Jeff Kennett’s Jeffisms and
deliver him his whopping victory in 1992.

However, he is also a dissenter. More than two decades as a key
party strategist counts for nothing and Georgiou rots on the backbench.

Malcolm Turnbull’s comments on Monday may have been sops to a hostile and left leaning audience.

And yet – consciously or not – he was also standing up for the very best traditions of the Liberal Party.

Labor doesn’t understand them, so no wonder Tanya Plibersek went to town over his remarks on Iraq.

John Howard has forgotten or abandoned them in his obsessive pursuit of
power, so the toadies and timeservers that make up the majority of his
Government have decided to leave well alone. They ignore these
traditions too.

Malcolm Turnbull, however, seems to have remembered them. True,
he’s been doing his damnest to suppress the idea that Liberals are
Liberals because they have the right to speak their minds since he made
his remarks – but at least he did it. If only on Monday
night. Poor bloke.

Turnbull’s critics have claimed that he is a destroyer, an egocentric iconoclast, a man with no respect for institutions.

How funny, then, that somewhere in his subconscious you can find the fundamental faith of the Liberal Party.

May that faith one day have free expression once again.

Christian Kerr can be contacted at christian