Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are fighting for the soul of the Liberal Party
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Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are fighting for the soul of the Liberal Party

As Tony Abbott became impossible to avoid this week, Malcolm Turnbull railed against the media's obsession with "personalities" rather than the real stuff of politics.

It's probably the only play left in the book at this point.

Even so, it never seems to work. It didn't work for Julia Gillard against Kevin Rudd, and it's even less likely to be effective for Turnbull. And that's because, for all the superficial similarities, there is one extremely important difference here. Turnbull's ever-escalating conflict with Abbott isn't simply about personalities. It's at least partly about ideas. It's about the soul of the Liberal Party. It's not just about power and revenge.

In some ways, that makes it more noble than the Labor farce of 2010-2013. But it also makes it far more catastrophic. Labor is now a largely stable entity - the odd nudging of Anthony Albanese aside. Granted, the blowtorch of government tends to reveal fault lines that the burden-free nature of opposition conceals. But Bill Shorten's basic agenda on housing affordability, penalty rates and taxing the wealthy surely gives it enough to go on with for some time if it takes government. With Rudd and Gillard gone, Labor has far less to fight about because it wasn't fighting over anything meaningful in the first place.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

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It's hard to see the Coalition faring similarly. The most operative phrase in this week's leaked recording of Tony Abbott was that the Liberal Party needed help "so that we can be what we really are".

Apparently right now, they are being what they really aren't. And given the Turnbull government has now accepted Labor's fundamental approach to education policy, and is slowly dragging itself to something similar on climate change, you'd have to concede this has a ring of truth. If you believe that's a problem, you're most likely to fight that to the death.

And you won't stop simply because you're in opposition and there's a Labor government to attack. And because the concern isn't just confined to Abbott himself, it won't go away if and when Abbott decides to retire. This is a movement. An increasingly marginal and unelectable movement, but a movement nonetheless. That's why all this talk about whether or not Turnbull will see out the year is not nearly as important as it seems. The question isn't whether Turnbull survives. It's whether in the long run the Liberal Party does.

The truly seismic problem here is that the big ideas on which the party is based are now exhausted. Its free-market liberalism, only recently an unimpeachable orthodoxy, is suddenly the target of populist assault from every political angle. Its conservatism has long since shrunk from a sober philosophy of pragmatic, ordered political change to one of reactionary culture warring against greenies and minorities.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

In the space of, say, a decade, the Liberal Party has witnessed a gathering consensus against it. Turnbull's "Labor-lite" turn on education, for example, does not happen in a vacuum. It is the result of having run the argument against a Gonski-style approach to funding twice and lost. Twice.

It is easy to forget that, before Abbott stormed to power, he had committed to some version of the National Broadband Network he had previously dismissed as a "white elephant", described himself on a "unity ticket" with Labor on education funding having previously called it a "Conski", and agreed to support the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Railing against the media's obsession with "personalities" isn't going to help Malcolm Turnbull deal with the Abbott insurgency.

Railing against the media's obsession with "personalities" isn't going to help Malcolm Turnbull deal with the Abbott insurgency.

Photo: AAP

Abbott won the election, but Labor had won these debates. When Abbott proceeded to break those promises, the electorate swiftly turned on him. These undercurrents in politics move things far more than the mere fact of which party happens to be in power. That's why the past four years under Coalition control have been the same four years in which debates have shifted so firmly against it on things such as negative gearing, same-sex marriage and corporate taxation.

That isn't a criticism of the Liberal Party. All parties have their moments during which they find themselves in tune with the season. Then those seasons change.

Labor faced a similar moment in the 1980s when the world turned away from the very ideas that gave Labor its identity. National economic borders would become porous, tariffs and subsidies removed, currencies floated, financial services deregulated and public services privatised. It was a liberal golden age, and yet it was a Labor government that ushered in these changes. Today, we take the Hawke-Keating era as a given - as though it were some natural expression of Labor's approach to reform. But there was very little that was Labor about it. Hawke assailed numerous articles of faith for Labor, and caused plenty of anger among the rank-and-file for being too business-friendly.

Of course, Hawke succeeded, and the result was 13 years of Labor government. But another result was a fundamental change in the meaning of Labor: a recognition that its strongly protectionist ideas had nothing more to give. And once the reforms were done, and through 11 years of John Howard, Labor struggled to justify its existence. It was now a liberal party offering only shades of difference from its main political foe.

It took an act of massive political overreach in the form of Howard's WorkChoices to give Labor meaning again. Even so, with that fight won, it quickly collapsed into pointlessness under Rudd.

Only now, thanks largely to forces beyond its control, is Labor emerging from this. This is a moment in which social goals such as equity and economic ones such as growth and sustainability are beginning to come into alignment; where gaping inequality is becoming less convincing as a price to be paid for prosperity. That helps Labor's reinvention, obviously. But if it keeps playing out this way, it puts the Liberal Party where Labor was 35 years ago - not merely seven years ago.

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The times are asking the Liberal Party to accept ideas it has long rejected as foreign, and to discover meaning somehow within that. That's a painful process even if you have a figure such as Bob Hawke leading it.

How you manage it with an Abbott insurgency that clearly has no intention even of beginning this task is Turnbull's problem, and anyone's guess.

Waleed Aly is co-host of Ten's The Project and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University. He writes fortnightly for Fairfax.

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