And so the moderate takeover of the Federal Liberal Party is completed, even if it won’t necessarily last that long. Malcolm Turnbull in charge, Julie Bishop still deputy but in internal exile in Foreign Affairs, Joe Hockey shadow Treasurer, Christopher Pyne made manager of Opposition business. Be gentle with him, Albo. And new finance spokeswoman Helen Coonan, who is aligned with the NSW Right, also happens to be one the party’s most progressive voices, especially on women’s issues.

Call it the Sydney First strategy.

In truth the takeover is partly accidental. Coonan had barely warmed the chair in foreign affairs — having been moved there by Turnbull from Human Services because he wanted to elevate Andrew Robb — but now she’s been promoted to a key economic ministry, up against one of the Government’s most formidable performers, because Bishop wanted Foreign Affairs and Hockey had been moved. Turnbull barely bothered to disguise the fact that this was a reshuffle designed to keep movement to a minimum.

There’s nothing accidental, though, about Pyne’s promotion, although he had filled in for Hockey in the past. When Brendan Nelson, lifted to victory with the aid of the party’s Right in November 2007, allocated portfolios, he made an example of Pyne, who had dared to call for a more moderate path for the party and thrown his hat in for the deputy leadership. Nelson gave him the justice portfolio, the equivalent of throwing his scalp to his conservative backers. Turnbull corrected this, elevating Pyne to education, and has elevated him further as a reward for, well, not being made mincemeat of by Julia Gillard.

At least, as Opposition Manager of Business, Pyne will spare us Hockey’s constant cries and groans of incredulity, as each statement from the Government and ruling from the Speaker prompted ever-louder howls of astonished outrage at the injustice of political life.

In contrast, Nick Minchin now more than ever looks like Don Corleone in retirement. Watch out for him to start sticking oranges in his mouth and chase little kids around the Senate.

The Liberal Party, eternally factionalised but without the party structure to deal with it, pays on results. Malcolm Fraser, who took the party’s progressive tradition further than any previous leader in areas like immigration and foreign affairs, engineered the dismissal of Whitlam, beat him twice and Hayden once. John Howard, who oversaw the removal of party moderates and oversaw a major shift to the Right, racked up four wins at his second go. Both were rewarded with undivided loyalty by their MPs. Fraser saw off a challenge from Andrew Peacock and Howard was so strong Costello never bothered. If Turnbull and the moderates succeed, they’ll earn the same support. If they don’t, the rubbish of the last fifteen months will continue to the next election and beyond.

One the reasons it will probably continue is the selfishness of Peter Costello. Did he knock back the shadow Treasurership? If so, when? On the weekend? Previously?

More to the point, who cares? Is there anyone on the planet who thinks he’d have accepted it? Or that he gives a stuff about the welfare of his party? Alexander Downer left. Mark Vaile left. Peter McGauran left. Brendan Nelson has now left. Costello remains, a permanent distraction, a constant jibe ready on the lips of the Prime Minister, who only has to gesture to him in Question Time. The selfishness of Peter Costello is now the last remaining stumbling block to the Coalition moving on from the Howard years and grappling with life after the financial crisis. While ever he remains, he’ll keep the focus on the Liberals. The Government will be quite happy with that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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