The links between members of the NSW Liberal Party and Opus Dei are out in the open again — what will this mean for two NSW-based leader of the Liberals, now their shine has mostly worn off?
News broke last week about a dishonest campaign against marriage equality being run by active Liberal Party members and preselectors in Sydney’s Hills district.
It was too late for Malcolm Turnbull even before gay MP Trent Zimmerman called his own party members “unhelpful”: the perception is now well and truly set that a formerly well-liked centrist PM is hostage to his own party’s right wing. To do the deal to oust Tony Abbott, Turnbull had to jettison the very policies that made him personally popular and advocate against what are widely known as his own views. This appears to have, predictably, cost him his personal polling numbers and made him vulnerable to the same sort of maneuvering he used to get rid of Abbott.
Turnbull’s weakness in his own party room was cemented by the disastrous miscalculation that was the double dissolution election. With one hard-right MP boasting to The Guardian the PM’s office now knew better than to even ask him to maintain party discipline, Turnbull seems well and truly done.
The NSW Liberal leader Mike Baird faces similar problems. As Alex Mitchell has pointed out, Teflon Mike is no longer as popular as he once was, with the added complication he has a number of minor party hard-right politicians to appease in the NSW upper house.
Against a tired, ICAC-weary ALP, Barry O’Farrell carried the Liberal Party into power in 2011 with the biggest swing in Australian electoral history. The Liberals’ ranks were thinned after the party’s own encounters with ICAC, with Baird replacing O’Farrell following those ICAC revelations about the bottle of Grange, but the charismatic Baird was able to secure a second term for his party at the 2015 election.
Until now, Baird has mostly managed to keep his party’s right-wing morality obsessions in check, but the lesson is before him — and them — in the current position of Malcolm Turnbull. He shows what can happen to a weakened centrist leader where the religious hard right decides to mount a push.
Even leaving aside the deals done with minor party right-wingers like Fred Nile in the upper house, some of Baird’s MP’s morality obsessions should have him considering his position carefully. While the Hawke/Clarke split has been carefully detailed, it doesn’t seem to have diminished the faction’s influence too much, and diagnoses of the end of the faction’s power may be premature in the face of some of the new players who’s religion-inspired campaigning seems to have mostly passed unnoticed. Two examples serve.
Elected in 2015, the current Liberal member for Epping Damien Tudehope once ran against the Liberals as a candidate for the Australian Family Association and served as the spokesperson for the same organisation, funded by B.A. Santamaria (of National Civic Council fame). A staffer to former attorney-general Greg Smith (himself a past president of Right to Life), Tudehope has added petitioning against Safe Schools to his list of morality issues, which include adoption and abortion.
Also against equal marriage is Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet. Associated with former factional leader David Clarke, Perrottet attended the Opus Dei-run Redfield College — where one of the men behind the “Children’s Future” flyer teaches. Perrottet has also advocated for cuts to pensions to stop the state “acting as a substitute for the family“.
As the SMH noted in 2014, the Baird/Stoner government was then shaping up as the most devout in the country. Baird seemed to be able to balance the retrograde obsessions of his own party members and maintain his popularity through steering a conservative economic, rather than social, course. After several missteps within his own Coalition — the Nationals’ revolt over greyhounds being the most recent — Baird now presents the same vulnerable position as Malcolm Turnbull to a resurgent right currently riding the hobby horse of equal marriage. Meanwhile, the favours required to pass electricity privatisation from Fred Nile are yet to be called in, in an upper house where no one holds the numbers and two Bills relating to abortion are foreshadowed.
All this comes at a time when fringe religious groups are working to cement their ties with the Liberal Party. Dominic Perrottet remains a spokesman for Marriage Alliance despite that organisation copping a public scolding for using an internal Liberal Party email list. The organisation itself is run by Sophie York, a Liberal Party candidate and councillor of the Catholic Lawyers Guild.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Party in Victoria is actively recruiting among right-wing community groups. All in all, the religious right within the Liberal Party has to answer the obvious question: what do you do with your policies that are electorally unpopular but you have a position of power relative to a leader popular (at least in part) because he doesn’t share your views? Given the choice of softening on morality campaigns or destroying the popularity of leaders, the choice might already have been made.