Comment: Rise of the Liberal moderates

(AAP)

Will the Liberal Party under Malcolm Turnbull really be more progressive? The recorded views of cabinet ministers may speak for themselves.

Having thwarted the efforts of arch-conservatives to block his return to the Liberal leadership, Malcolm Turnbull has made a number of conciliatory gestures to soothe the Right's jangled nerves.

The PM has declared he will keep the public vote on marriage equality, the Direct Action plan for emissions reduction, and reiterated that none of the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru will be settled in Australia.

But Turnbull is also preparing the ground for policies to be changed. Not unilaterally by him in a "captain's call", but through a cabinet style of government.

Quite a number of Turnbull cabinet ministers once called themselves moderates, but apparently felt the need to hide their progressive leanings to get ahead in the Abbott and Howard administrations.

Julie Bishop could be said to be one such minister. After winning the Deputy Leadership again last week, Bishop reminded us that she joined the Liberal Party and became an MP because she believed the party's founding values – free enterprise and social equality – provided "the most hope for the most people". And that they were as relevant today as when Robert Menzies formed the party.

Even so, the Foreign Minister remained silent on the question of gay marriage until she finally backed former PM Abbott on taking the issue to a plebiscite. Both her silence and support for Abbott were seen at the time as a concession to the Liberal right, who may have been considering her as a leadership alternative.

Given the asylum seeker policies implemented under his watch, it does take a mental leap to accept the new Treasurer Morrison as having progressive views.

Other ministers once known as moderates include Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt and George Brandis. Scott Morrison is a moderate too, although he reportedly attends the faction dinners of both the Liberal wets (moderates) and dries (conservatives).

The new Industry Minister, Pyne, is a Republican, in favour of marriage equality because children with gay parents "deserve some legal certainty about the households in which they live". He is a supporter of the High Court's decision on the Mabo case that established native title. During recent promotional talks for his book, the minister revealed he has been working for years to repatriate the remains of the Indigenous warrior Pemulwuy from overseas.

Hunt, a staunch supporter of the previous PM, surprisingly remains in the Turnbull Cabinet as Environment Minister. He has a life plan that he developed at 18, which has seen him dedicated to public service with an ultimate focus on the environment and human rights.

Like Bishop, Hunt is a fan of Menzian Liberalism, telling one reporter: ''In short, the individual matters. Really matters. In that respect, the essence of Liberalism is that it helps develop a better society by giving people the best chance at the life of their choice."

Attorney-General Brandis reportedly helped to found a forum of Liberal moderates in the 1980s, which included Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey. In the past, he's pushed back against claims the Liberal Party has always included a conservative stream, but also claims to have tempered his libertarian streak: "I am much more sceptical of rights-based arguments than I was".

It is going to be fascinating to see the extent to which these ministers will be willing to show their "true" colours,

Given the asylum seeker policies implemented under his watch, it does take a mental leap to accept the new Treasurer Morrison as having progressive views.

Like Hunt, Morrison believes in community service, and in his early parliamentary days he presented himself as a moderate. In Morrison's first speech, he acknowledged the traditional owners and lauded the national apology made by PM Rudd, saying there is "no doubt that our Indigenous population has been devastated by the inevitable clash of cultures that came with the arrival of the modern world in 1770 at Kurnell, in my electorate."

It is going to be fascinating to see the extent to which these ministers will be willing to show their "true" colours, in order to help reshape the Government's policies to better reflect the Liberal tradition espoused most recently by Bishop.

Along with the potentially prodigal moderates, there's at least one Turnbull minister whose progressive credentials are unquestionable. New Defence Minister Marise Payne is a feminist, a Republican and an opponent of mandatory detention.

She said of the Stolen Generations that: "I can never feel their pain, but I can try to understand the devastation I would feel in their situation, and I can apologise for those misguided acts. As a nation we must answer the challenge of reconciliation now, for the memory of those for whom it is already too late and for the sake of future generations."

If former PM Abbott had been true to his word about women of merit being appointed to his first Cabinet, Payne would have joined Julie Bishop at the table. However, Payne's strong reputation as a principled moderate reportedly kept her from being adequately promoted during both the Howard and Abbott years.

They may be driven to emulate Liberal heroes such as the former Fraser government ministers,

Now Payne is not only in Cabinet, but Australia's first ever Defence Minister, with a likely brief, among other things, to change the culture of the famously misogynist Australian defence force.

Turnbull's recognition and promotion of Liberal wets may also embolden the moderates among the Government backbenchers to agitate for more progressive policies.

They may be driven to emulate Liberal heroes such as the former Fraser government ministers, Peter Baume and Ian Macphee, who both crossed the floor against their party on social equity issues. Or more recently Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird, Judith Troeth, Judy Moylan and Mal Washer, who all stood their ground against their right-wing peers, even though their efforts were mostly to little avail.

At least now, with a Prime Minister and Deputy PM publicly committed to traditional Liberal values, and the potential for many more ministers to join them, the current generation of backbench moderates will not be driven to leave the parliament, exhausted from resisting the conservative tide, as the previous generation did.

This can only be a good thing.

Paula Matthewson was media advisor to John Howard in the early 1990s and has worked in communications, political and advocacy roles for 25 years.

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