CANBERRA -- In a speech described in News Corp tabloids as an "intercontinental missile" directed at Tony Abbott and other rebel conservative MPs, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has claimed the political centre ground insisting Liberals' founder Robert Menzies never intended his party to be conservative.
The speech has been quickly seized on by One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and Liberal defector Cory Bernardi with both of them stating that only they stand up for conservative values, but to make his point, the PM used the words of the Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies and former PM Tony Abbott.
"The sensible centre, to use Tony Abbott's phrase, was the place to be and it remains the place to be now," Turnbull said in delivering the Disraeli lecture to the Policy Exchange think tank in London on Monday.
Invoking Menzies, Turnbull said the Liberal Party "stands for freedom or it stands for nothing" and that labels of "conservative right" or "liberal left" were irrelevant in 2017.
"The truth is that the labels have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics, long cast adrift to be appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose."
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Turnbull also took on Labor in the only major speech of his European trip, but appeared more pointed at members of his own side of politics -- including his predecessor Tony Abbott -- who have been openly and frequently critical of the party's direction and have criticised the May budget as "Labor lite" and "second best".
His best defence is turning back to founding of the Liberal Party more than 70 years ago, when Menzies was taking on 1940s communism and fascism.
"In 1944 Menzies went to great pains not to call his new political party, consolidating the centre right of Australian politics, "conservative" - but rather the Liberal Party which he firmly anchored in the centre of Australian politics."
"He wanted to stand apart from the big money, business establishment politics of traditional "conservative" parties of the right, as well as from the socialist tradition of the Australian Labor Party - the political wing of the union movement."
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Will Turnbull's word missile strike the Conservative target back in Australia? Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop has told ABC radio: "It shouldn't".
"(The speech) very eloquently articulates our values as the Liberal party," she said. "It is a historically accurate articulation of how the Liberal party gained its name."
Pauline Hanson and Australia Conservatives leader and former Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi appeared thrilled by Turnbull's speech and are already using it for recruitment.
One Nation are claiming to be "Australia's largest conservative party," while Bernardi has "thanked" Turnbull for confirming why "regular Aussies" need to join him.
But, there's little argument from incoming Liberal federal president Nick Greiner, as he agrees the "sensible" centre is the "place to be".
"It always has been," the former NSW premier told RN Breakfast. "That does not mean you don't have policies that might be conceived as conservative."
— Sky News Australia (@SkyNewsAust) July 10, 2017
"You'd have to say the current immigration policies, our current security policies are clearly labelled conservative. It think some of the budget repair stuff... probably regarded as conservative."
And he said current government positions on childcare, education and NDIS might be "seen as moderate".
"I think in the real world, the Australian public isn't all that ideologically pure. They actually want good government," he said.
The internal party tussle over same-sex marriage has reignited tensions, particularly the recent leaked recording of Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne bragging to colleagues about the rise of the Liberal moderates and his expectations that marriage equality in Australia may happen "sooner than everyone thinks".
Liberal members, including WA senator Dean Smith, are working on a draft bill designed to introduce same-sex marriage through a free vote in parliament, but some conservative government members view the move as a break from the Turnbull Government's election promise to hold a marriage equality plebiscite.
There's no date set for the introduction of Smith's private members' bill, but it would be used as a trigger for the Liberal party room to drop its election commitment.
Lower house Liberal members behind the renewed push for same-sex marriage are now reportedly considering crossing the floor over the issue if Smith's bill fails to get up.
But a special Newspoll, published Tuesday by News Corp, shows "more Australians" now support a plebiscite on same-sex marriage over holding a free vote in parliament.
Of those surveyed, 46 percent preferred a plebiscite, 39 percent wanted politicians to decide, while 15 percent were undecided.
Around the time of the 2016 federal election, a survey found Australians overwhelmingly backed a plebiscite, while another poll taken in October found two thirds of those surveyed wanted parliament to legislate for same-sex marriage.
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