Liberal Party members scoffed and groaned when they were told by Malcolm Turnbull — fresh from his rolling of Tony Abbott — that their party was “not run by factions”. And rightly so.

“Well, you may dispute that, but I have to tell you, from experience, we are not run by factions, nor are we run by big business, or by deals in back rooms,” Turnbull persisted, over a room full of hecklers.

But his words are already coming back to bite as the party’s moderate faction prepares to challenge Abbott’s conservative old guard for preselection before this year’s federal election.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the factional split within the Liberal Party is not only significant, it is perhaps even ideologically wider than that within the notoriously divided ALP.

Australians seem to have been conditioned by the turbulent Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years to think that difference of opinion among political representatives and diversity within political parties is a bad thing. It’s not. Factions don’t necessarily mean having power concentrated in the hands of a few faceless men. In fact, it is party unity at any cost that is bad for democracy and ultimately bad for voters since it takes the focus away from good evidence-based policy and stakeholder consultation.

If the Liberal Party can manage these current ructions maturely — remember Abbott’s “grown-up, adult government”? — and maintain an ear to the ground throughout (not only to members, but to the voters who put them in power), it might just come out the other end a stronger, more electable party.

But that result depends largely on one thing: Tony Abbott sucking it up and accepting his position on the backbench — or, indeed, outside of Parliament. It remains to be seen whether he’s adult enough to pull that off.

Peter Fray

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