The moderates are often discreet with their opinions in the federal parliamentary Liberal Party these days, outnumbered by those in the right. But at the “Black Hand” dinner, held in conjunction with the party’s federal council on Friday night, they were in a congenial forum.
A tradition has been for the moderates and the conservatives to each have their separate dinners during council meetings.
A bevy of federal ministers at the moderates’ dinner included Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, Malcolm Turnbull, Ian Macfarlane, Sussan Ley and Simon Birmingham.
One non-parliamentary face was that of Christine Forster, Tony Abbott’s sister. Forster, who is gay and a campaigner for same-sex marriage, spoke in favour of changing the law.
Forster’s comments came as the US Supreme Court declared that the right to same-sex marriage is protected under the American constitution. The court ruled as unconstitutional state bans on same-sex marriage, thus legalising it across the country.
Abbott, asked about the Supreme Court decision on Saturday, said he noted it but “what happens in the United States is obviously a matter for the United States, just as what happened in Ireland a few weeks ago is a matter for the Irish.
"As for our own country, obviously there is a community debate going on. I have views on this subject which are pretty well known and they haven’t changed.”
But Liberals in favour of an early vote will be able to use the American decision to reinforce the argument that the Australian parliament should deal with the issue later this year. Work is under way to get a cross-party bill to bring before the parliament.
A prominent moderate, Bruce Baird, has been elected by the federal council as one of the party’s four federal vice presidents.
Another leading moderate, Tom Harley, from Victoria, did not recontest a vice president’s position. Harley survived an attempt, supported privately by Abbott, to dislodge him last year but very likely would not have had the numbers to survive this time.
Baird, who is father of New South Wales Premier Mike Baird, served in both the NSW and federal parliaments. Despite having been a state minister, as a federal member during the Howard government years Baird failed to make the frontbench, largely because of his strongly stated moderate opinions, which included being outspoken on asylum seeker issues.
On Friday night, council members got a preview of the sort of material that will feature heavily in the Liberals’ election campaign, with an extended video trenchantly attacking Bill Shorten.
The council comes amid some speculation about a snap election, but this is being dismissed by Liberal sources. In his address to the council, federal director Brian Loughnane said election planning by the organisation had begun and “will be our major priority in the coming 12 months”.
The party defused a potentially contentious motion on climate change, put up from the federal regional and rural committee, by shunting it off without substantive debate.
The motion was to urge the government to establish a parliamentary committee to “examine the scientific evidence that underpins the man-made global warming theory and investigate the reasons for the failure of computer models, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and prominent individuals to predict, amongst other things, the pause in global warming this century”.
It also said that in light of the uncertainty around the issue, Australia should not sign any binding agreements at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris this year.
Victorian Liberal Party President Michael Kroger moved successfully to refer the motion to the party’s standing committee on policy, saying it involved a lot of “very important issues”.
But two controversial motions were later passed: one calling on the government to revisit Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and remove the words “offend” and “insult” from it, and another urging the elimination of any references to race in the constitution. The government is planning a referendum that would explicitly recognise the first Australians in the constitution.
Council resolutions are not binding on the parliamentary party.