An ideological struggle dividing Australia’s ruling Liberal Party has erupted into open warfare only months away from a general election, and it could lead to a wave of defections by disenchanted government legislators.
Trailing badly in opinion polls, the coalition officially lost its parliamentary majority Monday when independent Kerryn Phelps was sworn in as member for Wentworth, the seat vacated by ex-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The ousting of Turnbull as Liberal leader in August in an internal coup led by the party’s right wing has alienated its moderate supporters and triggered an exodus that could leave the government unable to get its legislation approved.
Victorian legislator Julia Banks quit the party on Tuesday and said she would sit as an independent, attacking the “brutal blow” against Turnbull.
“Their actions were undeniably for themselves. The Liberal Party has changed, largely due to the actions of the reactionary and regressive right wing who talk to themselves rather than listening to the people,” she said.
New South Wales Liberal legislator Craig Kelly is expected to follow, after being squeezed out of a preselection battle for his seat in a counter-attack by moderates against the right wing. Kelly will stay on until the final 2018 sitting on December 6, but is expected to sit as an independent next year.
Two other Turnbull loyalists, Jim Molan and Craig Laundy, are considering joining the swelling independent benches, but have ruled out leaving the party. Laundy has indicated he may not re-contest his seat in the election.
There are also doubts over the support of Kevin Hogan, a legislator with the Nationals, the minor coalition partner, who sits with independents in parliamentary question time and is boycotting joint party room meetings.
Exploiting the government’s vulnerability, the opposition Labor Party said it will probably seek a High Court ruling on Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s eligibility to sit in parliament.
Dutton’s family trust partly owns childcare centers that get public benefits; legislators are not allowed to have a direct or indirect financial interest in a government agreement.
Right-wing powerbroker John Ruddick told Fairfax Media the bloodletting would drag on for years: “This is a philosophical and structural war. That’s why it’s going to only escalate post the two coming elections,” he said.
Banks’ defection has trimmed the coalition’s strength to 73, though it can also call on lower house Speaker Tony Smith in a tied vote. Laundy, Kelly, Molan and Hogan would probably back the government on legislation, forcing Labor — which has 69 seats — to rely heavily on independents.
The government should still be able to limp through to the poll, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison has hinted will be held in May, but may have to make some hefty sacrifices to survive.
Independents and minor factions, which say the Liberals are narrow-minded and out of touch, will use their bargaining strength to try and push through reforms that have wide public support.
These include the transfer of children held in migration detention centers on the island of Nauru to facilities in Australia, and the establishment of a national integrity commission to restore trust in the political system. The commission would probably function as an anti-corruption watchdog.
There is also strong public backing for action on climate change, one of the issues that brought on the power struggle within the Liberals. Right-wingers oppose any measures that would end the dominant role of fossil fuels in power output, leaving the party without a climate change policy.
Inaction on these issues, and the Liberals’ reluctance to endorse populist policies like same-sex marriage, is taking a big political toll. The coalition was routed in the Victorian state elections at the weekend, reduced to a rump of about 30 seats after a 6% swing to the sitting Labor government.
Worryingly for Morrison, the party’s biggest recent reversals have occurred in wealthier electorates that have traditionally voted for the Liberals. This mirrors a trend that first emerged during the Wentworth by-election last month.
Voters in NSW, the most populous state, will have their say in March, and Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian has asked her federal colleagues to stay away to avoid a contagion effect. Her party already faces an upheaval struggle.
The latest Newspoll shows the Coalition is trailing Labor by 10 points, which would translate into a loss of 20 seats in the national poll. Morrison is still preferred as prime minister over Labor leader Bill Shorten, with 46% of support, but this will count for nothing if his party suffers a wipeout at the polls.