Officially it is “a regrettable incident”: Alby Schultz pushing and jostling with Chris Pearce at the end of a discussion — more likely rancorous argument — over three-cornered contests in the Liberal Party Room this morning.

It was accordingly perfect timing for Julie Bishop to rise and urge the entire Coalition partyroom that the focus should be kept on the Government, not the Coalition. Unfortunately, the Deputy Leader’s imprecation is unlikely to be effective.

The Coalition’s discipline, which held more or less solid for the eleven years of the Howard Government, has never really recovered from the election defeat. Malcolm Turnbull was busy running his own under Brendan Nelson. Since Turnbull’s ascension, Peter Costello has felt no apparent compunction to do anything to help his leader or his party. Wilson Tuckey and Bronwyn Bishop insist on behaving like senile old relatives. And the Nationals, with Barnaby Joyce elevated from maverick to Senate leader, are not so much off the reservation as permanently on the warpath, and don’t much care if its Liberals or the Government they’re fighting.

As one would expect of a party Senate leader, Joyce now has an opinion on every subject, and a colourful vocabulary with which to express it. He recently refer to the Prime Minister as having a “spack attack”, which earned him a rebuke from a cerebral palsy group. He has also directly contradicted both Malcolm Turnbull and Warren Truss in saying the Nationals will never support any ETS and that there is no current Coalition policy anyway.

Because of his willingness to cross the floor when he was a Government backbencher, Joyce seemingly has a different standard applied to him by the media. But however it is dressed up, he is guilty of rank indiscipline, bordering on disloyalty. It’s testimony to how weak the Coalition leadership is compared to the Howard years that his antics are tolerated.

Alby Schultz has strong views on Joyce, and for that matter all Nationals, whom he regards as a sort of noxious pest. But it was Liberal shadow minister Chris Pearce to whom he turned his attentions in the Liberal Party room today. An MP leaked the altercation to the media, and a well-attended Coalition party room briefing waited patiently before being allowed to ask questions about it.

“There was a regrettable incident,” the Coalition spokesperson confirmed, and declined to elaborate beyond noting that there had been an unreserved apology.

At a time when the economic crisis has made a hitherto-invincible government suddenly vulnerable, and Malcolm Turnbull has at least halted his slide into Nelsonesque polling hell, his backbench is making his life miserable for him with self-indulgence and displays of petulance. Regrettable indeed.

Peter Fray

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