It says a lot about how desperate the far right at News Corp and within the Liberal Party are that Christopher Pyne’s entirely anodyne comments about same-sex marriage in a bar on Friday night have produced articles about “brawls”, “civil war” and “simmering tensions”.

Alarm bells are ringing among extremists because Malcolm Turnbull, out of political necessity, is shifting toward the centre on key issues. So far the Liberal party room has backed him — forecast clashes over Gonski and cutbacks to the great Catholic education funding rort failed to materialise. What if, for extremists, the unthinkable happens, and Turnbull keeps governing from the centre and manages to claw back ground against Labor?

Tony Abbott, the great hypocrite of Australian politics, naturally unloaded on Pyne yesterday. Abbott seems to invent political rules as he goes along. In February 2015, when a leadership spill motion was successfully moved by his party, apparently it was a rule that ministers were not allowed to vote for a spill because they were part of the leadership team. Now Abbott has gone further, to suggest that Pyne might have been “disloyal” because he voted for Turnbull in the 2015 leadership contest, and previous ones. So now frontbenchers can’t ever vote against a leader?

If Pyne was disloyal to Abbott, he had a pretty odd way of showing it. There was Pyne, shortly after the 2013 election, carrying out Abbott’s decision to cynically abandon his “unity ticket” promise on Gonski funding. And then backflipping, with Abbott, a few days later when the reaction overwhelmed them. There was Pyne trying to implement the ill-fated higher education reforms in the 2014 budget. There was Pyne, as Abbott’s Leader of the House, doing what he does best, always in the faces of his opponents, niggling away, annoying them bugging them, rattling them. 

Pyne’s other critic is his long-time South Australian Liberal Party enemy Cory Bernardi. Only, Bernardi doesn’t have a shred of credibility. He betrayed his party, shortly after it gave him a six-year term in the Senate. He bailed out. He’s a quitter who couldn’t hack being in a party led by someone he didn’t support — unlike Pyne.

The whole thing’s been a pretext for an alliance of interests between Turnbull’s opponents on the far right, and Labor, to portray the government as hopelessly paralysed by a reaction against Turnbull’s so-called “Labor-lite” strategy. All less than a week after the government managed the unusual task of negotiating a major policy through the Senate in the teeth of opposition from Labor and the Greens.

It would be fascinating to know exactly what the far right would prefer to this alleged “Labor-lite” approach. A strident right-wing government that ignored the electorate in favour of imposing austerity, deregulation and — entirely inconsistently — imposing government regulation on social issues? Exactly how long do they think that government would last? In the dream world of the elderly readers of News Corp papers and safe Liberal branches, it would be a stunning success. On planet Earth, about five minutes.

Peter Fray

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