At each stage over the past week of the Liberal leadership saga, the Liberals have found new ways, wholly unexpected ways, to make things ever worse for themselves.

Today, they have trumped all their previous efforts.  The election of Tony Abbott is a disaster of epic proportions for a party that was already up against it in the race to remain competitive at the next election.  They have now taken a major step to the Right, towards their base, and away from mainstream voters.

The sight of Abbott being clapped into and out his first press conference by grinning troglodytes such as  Bronwyn Bishop, Sophie Mirabella and Dennis Jensen must fill the hearts of Liberal moderates with deep anguish about the fate of the party when it goes up against the Rudd machine next year.

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Abbott is, by his own admission, a deeply divisive figure.  He is disliked by female voters for his aggressive attempts to use the Howard government to impose his brand of Catholicism.  He is strongly associated with the Howard years, having been the former Prime Minister’s most prominent acolyte.  In his first press conference, he refused to rule out a return to Workchoices, only indicating that that name was dead.  And while he has a commendable reputation for straight-speaking, he has none of the rhetorical power of Malcolm Turnbull or the warm media image of Joe Hockey.  Abbott has developed his thinking post-Howard, and offered some intriguing and creative policy analysis in his book Battlelines earlier this year, but he remains a figure of solidly right-wing thinking.

He also leads a party almost perfectly divided, which has been the Liberals’ problem right from the outset.  He immediately committed to reaching out to party moderates, promising to include all shades of opinion on his frontbench.  Hockey has indicated a willingness to continue serving and Abbott indicated he wanted him to remain shadow treasurer.  How other moderates, especially  environment spokesman Greg Hunt who strongly supports an ETS,  will be treated, remains to be seen.

And any reflexive loyalty to the leader on the part of party moderates will likely have been dissolved by the antics of the party’s right wing last week, in effect overturning the will of the party room and shadow cabinet with a campaign of outright defiance, a string of resignations and two spill motions.  Having ignored party rules and conventions, the conservatives will have no recourse if moderates choose the same approach.

The first test will be whether moderate senators toe the party line and vote down the CPRS package in the Senate or whether the likes of Judith Troeth and about 8-10 other moderates cross the floor to vote along the lines the party agreed last week, thereby passing the package.  Malcolm Turnbull in his press conference in effect encouraged them to do so, saying they should stand up for their beliefs.  The fate of the Bill will be decided this week, especially as Steve Fielding has ruled out supporting a motion to defer consideration of the Bill in favour of his own lunatic suggestion that there be a Royal Commission into climate change.

If they don’t support it, they and their colleagues will hand Kevin Rudd a double-dissolution trigger that he may now be much more inclined to use than previously, given the patent disarray within coalition ranks.

Labor remains concerned about its susceptibility to an anti-tax campaign by the coalition on the CPRS and a xenophobic appeal to its blue-collar demographic from climate denialists.

Even so, it is the coalition that is likely to continue to have problems with the climate-change issue.

So get used to a more right-wing Opposition, deeply conservative, one that rejects climate change, one in which hardliners who languished under the progressive Turnbull will have their day in the sun.

But a reckoning awaits at polling day. And sadly for the moderates, they will pay the price every bit as heavily as their conservative colleagues.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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