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How they coalesce in the Coalition

Date

James Massola, Political Correspondent

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At 10 minutes past five on Thursday afternoon you could hear a pin drop in Parliament House's marbled Members' Hall.

Four weeks after the budget had been handed down, Coalition MPs, battered by an ugly backlash, streamed towards the exits, the airport and a week in their electorates. The budget fallout has been bruising. Ministers have fluffed their lines on policy details, crossbench senators are vowing to sink particular budget measures and the government's friends in the conservative commentariat have started a war with a senior cabinet minister.

But here's the non-news from Canberra. Malcolm Turnbull is not counting numbers and will not challenge for the leadership; Prime Minister Tony Abbott has the respect of his party room and is safe in his job.

Even so, conservative commentator Andrew Bolt this week suggested, during an interview with Abbott, that Turnbull had ''his eye on your job'' - a suggestion the PM deflected. Turnbull bit back the next day, labelling Bolt ''demented'' and ''unhinged''.

An angry Communications Minister then took on radio station 2GB's Alan Jones (another friend of the PM) over suggestions of disloyalty. The Turnbull-Jones-Bolt showdown is a sideshow but it has focused attention on the government's drop in support and the jockeying behind the scenes. Apart from a couple of rusted-on supporters, Turnbull does not have a readily identifiable bloc in the party room.

While he may be popular with the public (like Kevin Rudd), it is the party room that chooses the Liberal Party's leader and there are no signs that it is about to change its collective view on Turnbull.

Turnbull, for his part, said on Thursday night he did not have ''any plans, any desires to be the leader'', though he did acknowledge an ember of ambition remained.

Abbott, in Paris, said his government was ''lucky to have a person of Malcolm's experience and insight in the communications portfolio'', though he acknowledged Bolt and Jones as friends and ''significant commentators''.

Turnbull is widely acknowledged as a talented performer and an impressive intellect, but the memories and scars from his stint as opposition leader remain. But after nine months in government, with an unpopular budget proving hard to sell and with the government looking ratty and rattled, MPs are calculating their prospects. Eventually, Abbott will have to address the issue of the stood-aside assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos. While some in the Liberal Party are speculating a mini-shuffle may be imminent, those close to the Prime Minister say it is most likely months away.

In Paris, Abbott pointed out that ''if you look at my record, you'll know that I don't lightly reshuffle my front bench, I made hardly any changes in 2009, we made modest changes after the 2010 election, and there were modest changes after the 2013 election because I believe that you should pick the right person for the job, and then leave them there to get on with it''.

Against this backdrop, alliances and allegiances have been formed in the parliamentary Liberal Party, both in and outside the cabinet. As Monash University's Nick Economou explains, the Liberal Party coalesces around a strong leader - think Abbott, but also John Howard, Malcolm Fraser and party founder Robert Menzies. ''Unlike in Labor, where you can command things by being brutal, in the Liberal Party you need to cajole people and be everyone's mate,'' he says. ''Whoever is leader in Canberra has more power to manage what is going on, especially compared to Labor where the leader can be at the beck and call of faction leaders.

''There are not formal factions in the Liberal Party, but alliances are clearly there and they reflect the fact that they are a broad centre-right party.''

In the past week, Fairfax Media has interviewed ministers in and outside the cabinet, backbenchers and power brokers to put together what is, unavoidably, an incomplete picture of those alliances. By necessity, these interviews have been on a ''background only'' basis.

There are four loose groupings that have emerged in the parliamentary party that reflect the friendships that have formed to pursue like-minded policy outcomes. And it is important to stress the Prime Minister has the loyalty of all of these groups.

The so-called ''Hockey club'' that has coalesced around the Treasurer is the best-known grouping. Aside from the Treasurer, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Health Minister Peter Dutton are perhaps its two best-known members. Beneath them sit a phalanx of rising stars including Jamie Briggs, Steve Ciobo, Kelly O'Dwyer, Mitch Fifield, Scott Ryan and others who share the Treasurer's economic world view. This group can best be characterised by their adherence to free markets and economic rationalism. Cormann is particularly influential in Western Australia; he has formed a tight bond with the Treasurer.

The second grouping can perhaps best be described as the Morrison Right/Pyne Moderates. Built around Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Education Minister Christopher Pyne - the leader of the moderates in South Australia - it also includes Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Attorney-General George Brandis.

Hunt and Morrison are said to be close, as are Pyne and Brandis; Hunt has a network of alliances in Victoria including parliamentary secretary Josh Frydenberg and several backbench MPs, while Morrison has allies in Queensland in junior defence minster Stuart Robert as well as in his home state.

Pyne has a power base in his home state that includes parliamentary secretary Simon Birmingham and moderate friends across the country. NSW centre-right power broker Alex Hawke is also said to be close to Pyne who, it should not be forgotten, garnered 18 votes for deputy leader as far back as 2007 after John Howard lost the election (Foreign Minister Julie Bishop won that vote with more than double this number).

This grouping is said to be more economically moderate, or wet, than the Hockey Club; Morrison, for instance, was reported to have argued for a $25 million lifeline to be thrown to SPC Ardmona this year, a proposal opposed by Abbott, Hockey and other economic dries.

Some in the party argue that the Morrison Right and Pyne moderates should be considered as two separate groups and any alliance is loose, at best.

The third grouping is the so-called ''hard right'' of the party, which coalesces around cabinet ministers Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews as well as senators Cory Bernardi and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. This grouping draws support from MPs across the country and is bound together by social conservatism more than a unified economic view.

Senator Abetz, for example, has argued forcefully for his home state of Tasmania to be treated as a special economic case with handouts such as $16 million for the Cadbury chocolate factory in Hobart; others are more economically dry.

The final grouping in the party, and perhaps the smallest, coalesces around Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and includes Defence Minister David Johnston. Bishop is almost universally liked within the party; backbenchers rave about her capacity for hard work and her willingness to help fund-raise, despite a punishing travel schedule. As Economou puts it, ''when it is in government the Liberals have been good at subordinating internal aspirations to the overall goal of supporting the leader and staying in government, unlike Labor''. While the alliances and friendships within the Liberal Party take shape, giving form and purpose to the government, Abbott remains first among equals.

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