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Cabinet ministers Brandis and Pyne go head to head at Liberal Federal Council

Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressing the Liberals on Saturday. AAP/David Crosling

Liberal organisers expected their federal council meeting in Melbourne to be a “no surprises” affair.

But, as with the Coalition government, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Long-planned changes to the party’s constitution, set to be the main debate at the meeting, were headed off at the pass.

Critics, many of whom are concerned the changes would give too much power to the federal party over the state divisions, said the required notice had not been provided.

The argument over the motion for deferral, moved by David Russell from Queensland, a former federal vice president, saw Attorney-General George Brandis and Education Minister Christopher Pyne at loggerheads.

Brandis had done much of the advisory work on the changes. He insisted there had been adequate formal notice - and anyway, he said, everyone had known the proposals were coming for a long time. “This process has been underway for years,” he said.

Pyne, who seconded the motion for the council not to consider the changes, disputed the right of Brandis - as an adviser on the issue - to even speak in the debate.

When the critics won the day and constitutional debate was scuttled the council was left without much to do, although a move to adjourn early was defeated after a slender majority (including Brandis) opted to break for lunch and come back in the afternoon to finish off a few remaining motions.

The Liberal council - unlike Labor’s national conference - has no formal clout. Its policy positions are not binding on the parliamentary party, as are those of the Labor conference (in theory at least).

Outgoing Federal President Alan Stockdale said in his Friday night speech that there had been suggestions from some prominent Liberals “that we should require the parliamentary party to ‘take more notice of the organisation’”.

“I believe that it is fundamental to the character and the electoral success of the Liberal Party that the parliamentary party is accountable to the electorate and not to the organisation. In my opinion, we should strongly reject all suggestions contrary to this fundamental principle,” he said.

This council’s agenda had fewer than 20 policy motions - most of them entirely uncontroversial. Debates on them were minimal (an exception was one relating to the GST on imported goods).

With the new Senate starting from Tuesday and meeting on July 7 for a sitting expected to repeal the carbon tax, Prime Minister Tony Abbott delivered a message to the new senators via his address to the council.

“I say to the new senators: we won’t hector you and we won’t lecture you. We respect your election as we ask you to respect ours. We simply ask that you acknowlege the trust placed in us by the Australian people to be their government,” he said.

On Wednesday Clive Palmer, leader of the Palmer United Party which has a pivotal crossbench role in the new Senate, announced PUP would support repeal of the carbon tax provided there was a legislative guarantee that savings would be passed onto consumers. But it would not vote for certain other parts of the government’s package.

The Prime Minister on Saturday released the terms of reference for his white paper on federal-state reform, which will be finalised late next year.

The Coalition is committed to pushing functions to the states but the crunch point will be aligning functions and funding responsibilities, which will also involve proposals from the government’s tax white paper.

There is little doubt that this will throw up some sharp differences, not least between the states themselves as well as potentially between the federal and state governments.

Queensland’s Campbell Newman said he was happy for his state to assume more responsibility but that also required rebalancing funding. He told The Conversation that he personally would like to see the Commonwealth give the states a slice of income tax.

Under his proposal, all income tax would be collected by the Australian Taxation Office, with a certain portion designated as belonging to the states and territories.

“On day one that this system went live, the tax rates would be exactly the same, but in time states and territories could either raise or lower their own component of that tax, as they saw fit.

"And that would allow for competition between the states and territories, which I think is another important part of this reform of federalism. ‘One size fits all’ isn’t the way to go,” he said.

On what Abbott has previously said, however, that’s a reform likely to be several bridges too far for the federal government.

Listen to our podcast from the federal council, featuring interviews with Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and outgoing Federal Liberal President Alan Stockdale, here.

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