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October 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

PM's Pragmatism: Reward Merit And Control The Party

October 16, 2006

by Glenn Milne - The Australian

When Petro Georgiou chose to try to save a colleague from political martyrdom he chose well. Even John Howard agreed - a rare moment of consensus between the two men these days.

I'm referring to Georgiou's contentious speech two weeks ago in which he argued the Menzies legacy of a broad Liberal church that included small-l Liberals and protected the rights of MPs to cross the floor had been hijacked in the Howard era by the hard Right cohorts of the party.

Georgiou, the member for Kooyong and a former Victorian Liberal Party director is, of course, one of these small-l Liberals, a member of an increasingly unhappy and small band of warriors in the federal parliament who go by the name of moderates.

It was Georgiou, along with fellow travellers such as Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird and Judith Troeth whose revolt over tougher laws for asylum-seekers earlier this year forced Howard to withdraw his proposed legislation from the parliament. Which, as some Liberals point out, could be argued is evidence that Howard does take notice of the moderates' opinions, coming as it did on top of a softening of the same laws even earlier in the year, again in the face of a threatened revolt involving all of the above.

What has emerged is that Howard has also begun to send other signals that he does, indeed, believe the take-no-prisoners approach of the Right of the party, particularly in NSW, has gone too far. This change in approach has not come in response to Georgiou but predates the member for Kooyong's public intervention.

In his speech Georgiou put a human face to what he argued was the internal siege of the moderates by the Right. That face belonged to Senator Marise Payne of NSW. He described Payne as one of the hardest working and most intelligent Liberals in the parliament. While Georgiou did not mention them by name the context was clear. At least two right-wing candidates have been circling Payne for preselection; Isobel Brown, an adviser in Tony Abbott's office and, more recently, Peter Phelps, a former chief of staff to another right-wing minister, Eric Abetz.

Payne occupies the third place on the joint Liberal-Nationals senate ticket in NSW. Third place is still vulnerable. At the 2001 election she was ironically dragged over the line by the PM's Tampa campaign, the rhetoric of which she would probably have privately cringed at. But were Brown or Phelps to prevail, Payne would be relegated to fourth spot and political oblivion. By singling out Payne, Georgiou was firing a shot across the Right's bow. But he needn't have bothered. Unbeknown to Georgiou Howard had already done it for him.

Weeks before Georgiou's speech, on September 4, as parliament resumed, the PM convened a meeting of his full ministry, including parliamentary secretaries, something he does three or four times a year. As part of his briefing Howard made it clear Payne was not to be touched. Sources at the meeting say Howard ranged the room with his eyes as he spoke, settling in turn on the cabinet leaders of the Right, Abbott and Finance Minister Nick Minchin. Those present say his intent was clear: he was sending a message in front of witnesses to Abbott and Minchin (both of whom he's close to) that he meant what he said.

Howard said he was of the view that Payne should be re-endorsed. And what's more he expected those who were at the meeting to be active in that regard. In case anyone missed the point, Howard repeated the sentiments at the party's federal executive meeting that Friday. Once again the PM was described as very firm, perhaps in a dip of the lid to the Liberals' federal president, Chris McDiven, who is a friend and supporter of Payne's.

In backing Payne, Howard is clearly acting on the merits. Payne is intellectually and politically a cut above many of her colleagues and likeable too. Even before the PM's edict, Alan Ferguson, a friend and vocal supporter of Howard's, had been campaigning for Payne. Ferguson is chairman of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs and trade. Payne is chairwoman of the human rights subcommittee under Ferguson. Within the committee, there is almost universal regard for Payne. Says one backer: "She plays no games and is not a troublemaker. Petro has decided to cast himself as a maverick. She has not. She works assiduously on women's issues, human rights and foreign aid.

"Small-l liberal views of the sort she holds are not maverick views. They are absolutely within the orthodoxy of Liberalism. Knocking her off would be an act of butchery. She doesn't piss Howard off in the same way Petro pisses Howard off."

But Howard's backing of Payne is also seen within the party as going beyond a judgment of character and performance. It's widely seen as a repudiation of what's being described within the party as "the black Right". This group's most hated incarnation is in NSW where they are headed by self-confessed member of Opus Dei and NSW upper-house member David Clarke. It was Clarke's black Right in NSW that knocked off Pru Goward's initial preselection bid in favour of a Right to Life candidate. His consigliore in Canberra is Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

"Payne is the canary in the coalmine," says one MP opposed to the Clarke-Fierravanti-Wells "axis of evil". "Howard's endorsement of Payne is aimed at them. He knows that this winner-takes-all approach is a bad look."

Another straw in the wind of the PM's changing attitude: as a result of a recent restructuring of senate committees all chairs became vacant. At Howard's insistence all incumbent chairs were reappointed, including Troeth. And it was a decision made after Troeth had defied the PM over asylum-seekers.

And two latest pieces of news. First, Senator Bill Heffernan, Howard's mailed fist in NSW, is said to be working both in thought and deed for Payne's future. Second, Payne's putative challenger, Phelps, has lodged an application for preselection for the NSW Legislative Council.

Howard's message has apparently got through.

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