09 August 2016
by Katharine Murphy
Conservative Liberals use Four Corners to put Malcolm Turnbull on notice
Eric Abetz warns ‘it will only take one person’ to cross the floor, and says it would have been gracious to return Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews or himself to cabinetMalcolm Turnbull faces pressure to reconcile the conservative wing of the Liberal party to elements of his agenda, like superannuation changes.
Conservative senator Eric Abetz has warned Malcolm Turnbull to govern inclusively, noting the Coalition’s slender post-election majority, and observing “it will only take one person or two in the House of Representatives to cross the floor to defeat government legislation”.
Abetz has used an interview with the ABC’s Four Corners program to renew his criticisms of Malcolm Turnbull on a range of fronts, airing his grievances about Turnbull’s refusal to restore Tony Abbott, himself or the former defence minister Kevin Andrews to cabinet, and repeating his opposition to the Coalition’s superannuation policy.
Four Corners also interviewed the former treasurer Peter Costello who declined to say whether Turnbull had the capacity to flatter and duchess the new Senate. “Well, I hope he can do it,” Costello told the program. “I mean it, ah this is the, this is the point that ah we’ll have to see.”
Costello also said the prime minister would face the risk in the coming parliament of colleagues threatening to quit the Coalition and become independents. He said given the numbers in the chamber, the prime minister could become “beholden” to MPs making demands.
“This is the risk on any particular issue at any particular time, not that these people will cross the floor, but they’ll threaten to go independent ah on you,” Costello told the program. “Um … you are beholden to them.”
The program broadcast on Monday night focused on Turnbull’s leadership and the state of the Liberal party post election.
Abbott is spearheading a push for party reform in New South Wales, using the program to warn that lobbyists holding positions as power brokers in the party creates the potential for corruption.
The argument about party reform in NSW is partly about transparency and disclosure, and partly a proxy war between conservatives and moderates in NSW – a division of the Liberal party where factionalism is rife.
Abbott was asked again during the program whether he harboured any ambition to return to the party leadership. He said “the Abbott era is over … and the Liberal party rightly wants to look forward, not back.”
While ruling out a return to the leadership, Abbott reserved his rights to make interventions about policy and strategy. The former prime minister said he believed there was “a lot that I can do over the next three years ah to try to crystallise and clarify where centre right politics ah in this country goes from here.”
Abetz used the program to continue his campaign for Abbott to return to the cabinet, an eventuality that has been ruled out comprehensively by Malcolm Turnbull, and a development that does not enjoy broad support within the Coalition.
The Tasmanian Liberal said there was “no signs” of rapprochement between Turnbull and Abbott, and he said it was a “strategic error not to restore one of us to cabinet to run a good ship” – citing John Howard’s maxim about reaching out to all elements of the party.
“Suffice to say I think it would have been gracious of the prime minister to reach out to his predecessor and say of course somebody that led us out of opposition into government has something to offer the Liberal party and the nation,” Abetz said.
“Somebody with that sort of experience clearly … is worthy of inclusion in the Cabinet. The fact that the prime minister did not think that that was the case is for him to explain but … much as I would like to see a rapprochement I have seen no signs of it.”
Abetz also resumed his criticism of the superannuation policy outlined by the Coalition at the recent election, arguing the Coalition needed to listen to the concerns of the base. “If we keep going full steam ahead and pretend that nothing happened on the second of July other than a huge mandate for us we will be going to an electoral disaster in 2019.”
Costello said there were genuine concerns [about] the super policy as it was presented, which the government had acknowledged by agreeing to look at it.
He also noted the policy presented at the election was not going to balance the budget. “The only way you’ll balance this budget is if you get spending below 25% of GDP, right? We’re at about 25.8% now. Um you cannot balance a budget on that. Until such time as you get your expenditures below 25, and preferably well below 25, you won’t balance a budget. Super won’t do it.”
Earlier on Monday, the treasurer, Scott Morrison, confirmed draft legislation for superannuation changes would include exemptions for major life events, in effect watering down caps designed to curb the use of super as a tax minimisation measure.