The Turnbull government’s behaviour this week is a perfect summation of why the Liberal Party is facing an unfolding crisis.

Despite a political attack on Bill Shorten’s union background, a continuing push for the Prime Minister’s Snowy Hydro proposal and achieving a long-sought legislative win on childcare reforms and welfare savings, the government literally stopped for a day to obsess about an issue that few voters have heard about, let alone care about: changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to allow more hate speech without fear of prosecution.

With uncharacteristic insight, the leader of the Liberals’ Coalition partner Barnaby Joyce nailed the problem to Fairfax journalists. Concern about 18C, according to Joyce, “lives in the extremities of the bell curve. Where do you meet those people? At party meetings, they are absolutely blessed people and they are terribly politically involved and they have an intense interest in some of the minutiae of debate. They come into your office to rant and rave about it, all four of them.”

The change to the 18C wording will be defeated in the Senate, but not before it occupies still more attention that the government could fruitfully direct elsewhere. The government thus allowed itself to be distracted by the obsession of, in the Deputy Prime Minister’s own words, a tiny number of extremist party members. Yet, clearly the Prime Minister — who has previously mocked 18C as an obsession of the “elite media” — felt he had no political choice but to embark on a divisive and potentially risky effort to placate the right. 

As Turnbull has demonstrated, this becomes a vicious circle — the more he placates the hard right, the more emboldened they become, and the weaker he looks. Only a strong, successful leader will have the political capital to ignore party radicals in favour of governing from the political centre, and Turnbull lost his chance for that when he fell over the line at July’s election. As a creature of its state organisations, the federal party also lacks the factional mechanics to resolve internal tensions, as Labor has long done via its factional system; nor can it replicate the success of the NSW Liberal Party, where moderates have proven factionally skillful enough to defeat conservative efforts to push the party to the right — although not without frequent outbreaks of civil war. Party radicals also have, in effect, their own broadcast platform at Sky News, which is little-watched but exercises disproportionate influence due to the attention other media and politicians give it.

Meanwhile, party coffers are emptying as branches lose office, business shies away from the evermore problematic area of political donations and Labor appears set to win whenever the next federal election is called. And the dearth of women within the party’s parliamentary ranks looks ever worse as Labor’s ranks swell with senior women.

A leader who could offer electoral success, backed by a unified parliamentary team, would stimulate donations, encourage internal party reform and pick and choose which issues to placate the radical right on, rather than caving in on all of them as Turnbull has had to do. The question now is whether the party can produce such a leader, or whether its ageing, radical base no longer cares about political success.

*This piece is one in a series of articles, called Liberals in Crisis, covering topics such as dwindling party membership, debt and donations, apparatchiks as commentators, and the Nats’ failure to secure the Coalition’s flanks.

Peter Fray

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