The feud between Nick Minchin and Malcolm Turnbull is a symbol of the rift in the Liberal Party between the moderates and the conservatives, says managing editor David Donovan.
ON MARCH 21 this year, Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin announced he was quitting politics. On May 1, the previous leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, said that he had changed his mind about quitting politics and would, in fact, recontest his seat of Wentworth at the federal election this year.
It would be interesting to know if these two events were related, since these two men have been engaged in a bitter feud for over a decade.
It seems that the most brutal battles in politics are fought between members of the same party, and the leadership battles of Hayden and Hawke, Hawke and Keating, Peacock and Howard and Howard and Costello are commonly used examples.
The interesting aspect of the Turnbull/Minchin struggle is that Nick Minchin has seemingly never been interested in becoming prime minister. Instead, he has been content to play a Machiavellian role in the background: sniping, undermining, threatening, manipulating and playing the numbers in the Liberal Party backroom to get the results he wanted, which he almost always did. For good reason, Minchin is nicknamed the ‘Dark Prince’ of Australian politics.
The struggle between Minchin and Turnbull is an example of the ongoing struggle between the moderates and the conservatives – the wets and dries – for Liberal Party dominance. Minchin is the arch-conservative and Turnbull the recent flag-bearer for the moderate side of the Party. At the moment, the dries reign supreme.
Minchin is indeed a creature of the Liberal Party, having been on their payroll almost his entire working life. Originally from Sydney, he worked briefly as a solicitor before becoming a Liberal Party staffer in 1977 at the age of 24. He became deputy federal director of the Liberal Party in 1983 and by 1985 was the South Australian Liberal Party state director and campaign director. In 1993, Minchin gained a spot on the Liberal’s South Australian Senate ticket and was duly elected.
Turnbull is a direct contemporary, just a year younger and also from Sydney. Apart from sharing party allegiances and nominal professions, the similarities between the two appear to end there. Not deeply involved in the Liberal Party early in his career, Turnbull had an illustrious career in law and business before becoming a member of the NSW state executive in 2002. He was first elected to Parliament in 2004.
A neo-conservative, Minchin is a strong supporter of less regulation and more freedom for big business, including big tobacco. For example, in 1995 he issued the following dissenting report to a Senate Committee report on the effects of tobacco:
“Senator Minchin wishes to record his dissent from the committee’s statements that it believes cigarettes are addictive and that passive smoking causes a number of adverse health effects for non-smokers. Senator Minchin believes these claims (the harmful effects of passive smoking) are not yet conclusively proved … there is insufficient evidence to link passive smoking with a range of adverse health effects.”
Just this year, Minchin appeared on the ABC’s Q&A programme, where he told smokers to “go for it” and praised them for dying early and saving the nation from spending money on health.
Minchin was Finance Minister when the Howard Government implemented Work Choices and was famously caught on tape in March 2006 telling members of the ultra-conservative HR Nicholls Society that he did not believe that the Government’s reforms went far enough. Minchin said then that “…there is still a long way to go… awards, the IR commission, all the rest of it…”.
Minchin advocates privitization and has said that the Government should not invest the proceeds of the Telstra share sale to build infrastructure, but should instead buy shares on the stockmarket.
Fatefully, as it would turn out, Minchin does not believe in human induced climate change.
Turnbull, in contrast, has a more moderate stance on corporate regulation and is on record as saying Work Choices went too far. He is, of course, a passionate believer in climate change.
They first publicly locked horns over the issue of an Australian republic. Turnbull was the chair of the Australian Republican Movement and most public advocate for the republic leading up to the 1999 referendum. Minchin was a staunch monarchist and, in 1996 as special minister of state in the Howard Government, was assigned by the prime minister to manage the Constitutional Convention and all the arrangements for the forthcoming referendum on the issue. Of course, passionate monarchist Howard gave Minchin the underlying mission to sabotage the vote and ensure Australia did not become a republic.
This is confirmed by a speech Minchin gave in August 2006 at Old Parliament House, where he spoke about being back at the same venue where a decade before, at the Constitutional Convention, the conservatives suckered the republicans into accepting a dud model that scuppered the republic. Upon hearing this, Turnbull immediately stood up from his dinner and walked out.
Minchin’s next significant victory over Turnbull was in 2007 in the Liberal Party leadership ballot that Turnbull contested against Brendan Nelson. Minchin was instrumental in gathering enough numbers to ensure that the weak and unelectable Nelson gained the Opposition leadership for the conservative arm of the party by just three votes.
Shortly afterwards, Nick Minchin baited Turnbull, suggesting in the press that his failure to consult with party colleagues before declaring his opinion to the media on such issues as an apology to the aboriginal ‘stolen generations’ had cost him the leadership. Turnbull soon confronted Minchin over this in the party room whereupon Minchin told him he was “too fucking sensitive”.
Turnbull got some revenge over Minchin the following year when, in September 2008, despite Minchin’s best efforts, he was elected as leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party over the hapless Nelson. Turnbull gave Minchin a front bench position, but this did not prevent Minchin from repeatedly publicly undermining Turnbull’s position on climate change all throughout the following year.
Finally, in November that year, Minchin resigned his cabinet position in protest against Turnbull’s position on the Government’s emissions trading scheme. This triggered another vote for the leadership, which Turnbull ultimately lost by a solitary vote to Tony Abbott, the Minchin candidate.
Turnbull was scathing about Minchin’s role in his defeat, saying on ABC Radio: “As Tony [Abbott] observed on one occasion, ‘climate change is crap’, or if you consider his mentor, Senator Minchin, the world is not warming, it’s cooling and the climate change issue is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to deindustrialise the world”.
In a sign of the rift in the party, Turnbull accused Minchin and his ”acolytes” in the ”hard right” of bullying and intimidating the majority of the party room into agreeing with their position.
When Turnbull announced he was reversing his decision to resign from Parliament, Tony Abbott said he was “thrilled” by the decision. This didn’t stop Minchin from once again expressing his contempt for Turnbull:
“I thought Malcolm did the honourable thing in indicating he would not be a Liberal candidate at the next election,” said Minchin. “He completely disagrees with the current Coalition policy on CO2 reductions. He’s entitled to do so on the back bench. But obviously to be on the front bench he would need to support the policy.”
Malcolm Turnbull may have come back from the dead because he has reached the conclusion that if the Liberal Party goes backwards in elected seats at this election, Tony Abbott’s position as leader will come under question. And without Minchin pulling the strings, Turnbull may feel he has a reasonable chance of regaining the leadership.
On the other hand, given Minchin’s powerful Liberal Party network, built up over the course of three decades in politics, it is not certain that he now even needs to be in Parliament to pull the strings. It seems difficult to believe that, as a relatively young man, he would be prepared to risk the ascendancy of the right faction within the Liberal Party that he has striven so hard to achieve.
The Liberals talk about factional power-brokers pulling down a Prime Minister and installing Gillard as leader, but the question must be asked: is the Liberal Party in any way different?
Malcolm Turnbull would be advised to not let down his guard. One suspects he may need to invest in some garlic, holy water and a silver stake if he ever wants to become the leader of the Liberal Party again.