Turnbull facing revolt from conservative MPs

Mr George Christensen wants a tougher stance on national security and foreign workers. He has sought a ban on the burqa. Mr Cory Bernardi has registered a movement called Australian Majority and is believed to be planning to launch a new party.
Mr George Christensen wants a tougher stance on national security and foreign workers. He has sought a ban on the burqa. PHOTO: GEORGE CHRISTENSEN/TWITTER
Mr George Christensen wants a tougher stance on national security and foreign workers. He has sought a ban on the burqa. Mr Cory Bernardi has registered a movement called Australian Majority and is believed to be planning to launch a new party.
Mr Cory Bernardi has registered a movement called Australian Majority and is believed to be planning to launch a new party.PHOTO: GEORGE CHRISTENSEN/TWITTER

Party leadership at stake if he confronts them; loss of public support if he gives in to them

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is facing an internal revolt from a group of ultra-conservative MPs who have been emboldened by the election of Mr Donald Trump as US President and are threatening to break away from the ruling coalition.

The challenge comes at a perilous time for Mr Turnbull, whose Liberal-National Coalition trails the opposition Labor party in opinion polls.

Mr Turnbull's own approval ratings have plummeted, partly due to perceptions that he has abandoned his progressive tendencies to appease the more conservative wing of his coalition.

Adding to his woes, the coalition holds only a one-seat majority in the Lower House of Parliament. Any defections to a new conservative party could force him to preside over a minority government.

Leading the push are two outspoken MPs, Mr Cory Bernardi and Mr George Christensen, who have called for a harder line on climate change, same-sex marriage and immigration, issues that Mr Turnbull supports.

Mr Bernardi has registered a movement called Australian Majority and is believed to be planning to launch a new party. The group has a logo and a website, which says "Coming Soon".

Mr Bernardi, a South Australian Liberal senator, has remained coy about his intentions but has promised a "massive 2017". He is believed to have funding from Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart, the nation's richest woman, who is fiercely conservative.

"Given the stasis in politics all around the world, it's only those who are willing to go all in who can make a change, and I'm in this to make a change," he said on Dec 11.

Australia's sluggish economy has fuelled a growing populist tide in recent years, particularly in regions affected by the end of the decade- long mining boom. But the recent election of Mr Trump and the rise of conservatives in Europe  appear to have given added encouragement to disaffected right-wing members of the coalition.

Mr Bernardi, a 47-year-old former investment adviser and fund manager, is known for his opposition to action on climate change, granting asylum to refugees from Syria and laws banning hate speech. He is a supporter of Mr Trump and he and Mrs Rinehart reportedly met senior members of the US President-elect's campaign team in Washington last month.

Mr Christensen, 38, a Queensland MP from the National party and fellow supporter of Mr Trump, is also believed to be considering leaving the coalition. He is in the Lower House of Parliament.

He has urged Mr Turnbull to adopt tougher approaches to national security and foreign workers. He has called for the burqa to be banned and for the introduction of the death penalty for terrorists.

In a Facebook post on Dec 22, Mr Christensen signalled he would consider leaving the coalition if it fails to adopt conservative policies.

"What the Turnbull government needs to do is start being more loyal to the voters and the party members who sent us here or there will come a time when remaining inside the tent is no longer tenable to my conscience or my voters," he wrote.

Despite his progressive views, Mr Turnbull has toed the party line since deposing Mr Tony Abbott last year to become Prime Minister.

However, he remains mistrusted by many in the party, especially supporters of Mr Abbott, a staunch conservative.

Mr Abbott and his backers have expressed sympathy for the gripes of the rebel right-wing MPs but have urged them to stay.

Some MPs have speculated privately that Mr Bernardi, if he forms a new party, may attract support from other disgruntled coalition colleagues.

Analysts say Mr Turnbull will need to decide whether to confront the rebels and risk his party leadership, or pander to them and risk losing further public support.

Either way, as commentator Andrew Clark noted on Wednesday, the major parties on the left and right are under threat.

In a trend that is playing out around the world,  he said, increasing numbers of people seem to believe they have been "pushed around, taken for granted" and are turning to outspoken plain-speaking nationalists, he wrote in The Australian Financial Review. 

"Many Australians share in a troubled mood affecting the world: disenchanted with globalisation, hostile to refugees, and bewildered, scared and angry at Islamic terrorism," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2016, with the headline 'Turnbull facing revolt from conservative MPs'. Print Edition | Subscribe