On March 21 this year, Liberal Party Senator Nick Minchin announced he was quitting politics. On May 1, the previous leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull, said that he had changed his mind about quitting politics and would, in fact, recontest his seat of Wentworth at the federal election this year.
It would be interesting to know if these two events were related, since these two men have been engaged in a bitter feud for over a decade.
It seems that the most brutal battles in politics are fought between members of the same party, and the leadership battles of Hayden and Hawke, Hawke and Keating, Peacock and Howard and Howard and Costello are commonly used examples.
The interesting aspect of the Turnbull/Minchin struggle is that Nick Minchin has seemingly never been interested in becoming prime minister. Instead, he has been content to play a Machiavellian role in the background: sniping, undermining, threatening, manipulating and playing the numbers in the Liberal Party backroom to get the results he wanted, which he almost always did. For good reason, Minchin is nicknamed the “Dark Prince” of Australian politics.
The struggle between Minchin and Turnbull is an example of the ongoing struggle between the moderates and the conservatives - the wets and dries - for Liberal Party dominance. Minchin is the arch-conservative and Turnbull the recent flag-bearer for the moderate side of the Party. At the moment, the dries reign supreme.
Minchin is indeed a creature of the Liberal Party, having been on their payroll almost his entire working life. Originally from Sydney, he worked briefly as a solicitor before becoming a Liberal Party staffer in 1977 at the age of 24. He became deputy federal director of the Liberal Party in 1983 and by 1985 was the South Australian Liberal Party state director and campaign director. In 1993, Minchin gained a spot on the Liberal’s South Australian Senate ticket and was duly elected.
Turnbull is a direct contemporary, just a year younger and also from Sydney. Apart from sharing party allegiances and nominal professions, the similarities between the two appear to end there. Not deeply involved in the Liberal Party early in his career, Turnbull had an illustrious career in law and business before becoming a member of the NSW state executive in 2002. He was first elected to Parliament in 2004.
A neo-conservative, Minchin is a strong supporter of less regulation and more freedom for big business, including big tobacco. For example, in 1995 he issued the following dissenting report to a Senate Committee report on the effects of tobacco:
“Senator Minchin wishes to record his dissent from the committee’s statements that it believes cigarettes are addictive and that passive smoking causes a number of adverse health effects for non-smokers. Senator Minchin believes these claims (the harmful effects of passive smoking) are not yet conclusively proved … there is insufficient evidence to link passive smoking with a range of adverse health effects.”
Just this year, Minchin appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program, where he told smokers to “go for it” and praised them for dying early and saving the nation from spending money on health.
Minchin was Finance Minister when the Howard government implemented WorkChoices and was famously caught on tape in March 2006 telling members of the ultra-conservative HR Nicholls Society that he did not believe that the government’s reforms went far enough. Minchin said then that “… there is still a long way to go … awards, the IR commission, all the rest of it …”.
Minchin advocates privitisation and has said that the government should not invest the proceeds of the Telstra share sale to build infrastructure, but should instead buy shares on the stockmarket.
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