In a 2015 speech to the NSW Liberal Party State Council, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull declared “we are not run by factions”. It was a claim that had the party faithful rolling in the aisles.
While Labor organises along strict Left-Right lines (with some smaller sub-factions, often allied with a specific union) the Liberal Party is far more byzantine. Nevertheless, factions or ideological groupings play an important role in organising the modern parliamentary party.
To report this story, The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age conducted more than 50 interviews with 39 MPs in the 91-member federal parliamentary Liberal Party.
What emerged was agreement on two key points.
There are three broad groupings within the party – a Moderate or Modern Liberals wing, with Finance Minister Simon Birmingham as its leader; a Morrison Club/Centre-Right grouping led by the Prime Minister; and a National Right group led by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
The second key point is that MPs (except for the unaligned few) are drawn to one of these three groups by overlapping interests that span their state of origin and the region they’re from, allegiance to a powerful individual, faith, ideology, philosophical interests and their year of election.
The NSW and South Australian divisions of the party are the most similar to Labor in that they have a factional structure (Moderate, National Right and in the case of NSW, Centre Right). In Victoria factional allegiances are largely based on personalities and the party has been riven by divisions for at least a decade since the faction led by former federal treasurer Peter Costello and powerbroker Michael Kroger fell apart. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg – close to Kroger and National Right powerbroker Michael Sukkar – leads the Victorian “ambition faction” after he thrashed his friend, Health Minister Greg Hunt, in the contest for the deputy Liberal leadership in 2018, while the Costello group has largely faded away.
The running joke among party moderates is that in Queensland, WA and Tasmania there are no moderates – like Canberra’s version of the Tasmanian Tiger or the Grampians Puma, there are people who swear they exist, but they rarely break cover in public.
So how do Liberal MPs align when it comes to “factions”? How can they be in more than one group? Who is in the “ambition faction”? Who is in the Prayer Group? And who are the Monkey Pod Lunch Conservatives?
How do Liberals organise?
To understand how the Liberal Party works, a good starting point is former Howard government minister David Kemp’s 1973 essay A Leader and a Philosophy. “Liberal factions tend to be very different to Labor’s factions,” Kemp says, “they aren’t organised in the same way and they tend to cut across each other on different issues, it’s not as clear-cut and there is much more fluidity.
“The groupings in the Liberal Party tend to be around personalities and issues but you get people with similar views in different groups.”
This observation is crucial. In the 1980s and ’90s there were the “dries”, who emphasised free-market economics and conservative social policy, and the “wets”, who favoured more progressive social policy and bigger government, but those groups are no more.
These days the Moderate faction is the leading advocate of free-market economics whereas the National Right is more concerned with social issues: religious freedoms, gender identity, national security and, until recently, opposing same-sex marriage.
Climate change is still a lightning rod: the Moderates favour stronger action to mitigate it, the National Right counts some sceptics among its number and the Centre Right takes a pragmatic, middle-of-the-pack approach (as it does on many other issues).
Personalities in the Liberal constellation of alliances and leaders accrue personal loyalty over time – especially from those they bring into parliament, such as the 15 new MPs who won their seats in 2019.
While the party’s factional lines are on clearest display during leadership spills, the groups are always present, working behind the scenes. And while the party does not rely on factions to organise and manage policy debates to the extent that Labor does, the groupings play a key role in managing competing interests.
What faction is the Prime Minister in?
Scott Morrison is the titular head of the Morrison Club/Centre Right group. Outside NSW, where the Centre Right is an organised faction, this grouping is the least formally structured of the three main groups. It doesn’t meet on a regular basis and is really several overlapping groups with shared interests and Morrison as its figurehead.
The group’s unifying philosophy is pragmatism - that means an adherence to free-market economics (but with enough flexibility to splash billions to prop up the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic) and relatively conservative social values.
As one member of the group puts it, “we realise you don’t win elections by yelling at people about abortion. We are dry economically and socially conservative but not in an ‘in your face’ way.”
Morrison’s club primarily consists of MPs who entered parliament when he did, in 2007: Alex Hawke, the factional organiser of the Centre Right in NSW, Queenslander Stuart Robert and West Australian Steve Irons. This core group is also defined by their shared faith (all are members of the Prayer Group – more on that below) and their “let’s get things done” approach.
Ben Morton, another West Australian and, like Morrison, a former state division director, is one of the PM’s closest and most able lieutenants but if Morrison were not in the parliament, Morton’s philosophical home would be the National Right.
In NSW, Morrison and Hawke have five other rusted-on supporters in Hollie Hughes, Melissa McIntosh, Lucy Wicks, Julian Leeser and Jim Molan. Environment Minister Sussan Ley, also from NSW, is part of the Morrison Club but historically has been a moderate and so isn’t considered a core member of the Centre Right.
About half of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s Victorian group, including Hunt, Trade Minister Dan Tehan and a handful of others, belong to the Morrison Club. A large cohort of Queenslanders, many of them first-termers, people of faith or both, and some MPs from other states are also members of the Morrison Club. In all, about half of the Prayer Group belongs to the Centre Right while the other half is in the National Right.
Both Moderates and National Right members argue that some MPs self-nominate as members of the Centre Right because it’s the Morrison Club – personal loyalty to the PM matters, particularly for the class of 2019.
MPs who have historically been moderates but are in the Morrison Club include Hunt, Ley, Hughes, Anne Ruston, Jason Wood, Julian Leeser, Sarah Henderson and Rowan Ramsey.
On the day that Morrison leaves parliament, it’s likely the Centre Right will begin to lose members back to the other two factions unless Frydenberg, the clear heir apparent to the Liberal leadership, can hold the club together. It’s important to remember that back in 2014 there was a (Joe) Hockey Club – but political trajectories can reverse in an instant.
Who are the Moderates and Modern Liberals?
Simon Birmingham, Marise Payne and Paul Fletcher are the three most influential Moderates in the federal Liberal Party. All three are cut from similar cloth and are quieter personalities than their factional predecessors Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop and George Brandis.
The Moderates don’t have a weekly meeting when parliament sits. Instead, they meet to discuss specific policies or legislation on a more ad hoc basis.
A grouping within the larger is dubbed the New Guard Moderates or Modern Liberals. Elected in 2016 or 2019, they typically represent inner-city lower house seats or are in the Senate.
This group are more economically dry than their elder colleagues, progressive on social issues and, if anything, willing to advocate for more ambitious climate change policy. As one member puts it: “We are Menzies Liberals, the ‘live and let live’ people. And we are the old dries and wets at the same time.”
The New Guard have landed the chairmanships of some of parliament’s most important committees, including mental health (Fiona Martin), taxation (Jason Falinski), economics (Tim Wilson), Fintech (Andrew Bragg) and treaties (Dave Sharma).
Nearly three years on from the spill, the PM has broad support across the party from all three factions.
As chief political correspondent David Crowe wrote in Venom, his book about the fall of Turnbull and the rise of Morrison, Morrison beat Dutton and Julie Bishop in the 2018 leadership contest because his core group of about 15 supporters was able to weld together an alliance that also included the Moderates, securing him his 45-40 victory in the party room.
Nearly three years on from the spill, the PM – “a natural conservative, not an ideological conservative”, as one of his allies puts it – has broad support from all three factions.
But that doesn’t mean the Moderates are always happy with the PM’s policy approach. Some feel he takes the Moderates’ support for granted; and they believe that, in a post-Morrison era, “a lot of people in the Centre Right, in particular, will move back to us”.
Who are the conservatives?
The National Right (sometimes called the Hard Right) is the most organised faction in the Liberal Party and is undergoing a changing of the guard. For years its figureheads were Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews. Abbott has, of course, left the building, Andrews has lost preselection and Abetz is facing a challenge from his former staffer, Jonathon Duniam, for the top spot on the Tasmanian Senate ticket.
Peter Dutton, the notional leader of the faction, is perhaps the least well-understood conservative in the parliament. He is best described as a national security conservative rather than a religious conservative, and is arguably more socially progressive than the Prime Minister.
Michaelia Cash has begun to fill that vacuum, as has rising star MP Andrew Hastie, but Mathias Cormann casts a long shadow in the west.
The exit of Mathias Cormann, Dutton’s close friend, has left a big gap in the National Right and in WA in particular. Senator Michaelia Cash has begun to fill that vacuum, as has MP Andrew Hastie, but the former senator casts a long shadow in the west. Angus Taylor is an important figure, insofar as he’s a member of the cabinet, but doesn’t tend to wield influence in factional brawls over preselections.
Victoria’s Michael Sukkar and the ACT’s Zed Seselja have risen through the ranks and are now involved in everything from organising the annual National Right dinner to influencing internal policy debates (incidentally, the Moderates have a similar annual meal known as the Black Hand dinner, while the Centre Right doesn’t have a comparable event but some attend the National Right meal).
Sukkar also wields significant influence over preselection in his home state. Hastie, as well as Queenslander Amanda Stoker and South Australian Tony Pasin, are also increasingly influential.
The National Right is more likely to speak with one voice on social policy rather than economic policy. As a member of the faction puts it, the group believes in “government that is as big as it has to be and the acceptance that the future of the Liberal Party is in the outer suburbs and the regions”.
“We believe in defending the value of institutions that have stood the test of time.”
Philosophically, the National Right and the Morrison Club have a lot in common - it’s a question of degrees of emphasis on specific policies - and many members could be at home in either group.
What are the other key sub-groups?
The fact that many MPs belong to more than one group underscores the party’s less formal factional alignments and how interests overlap.
Key sub-groups include the Prayer Group, the Monkey Pod Lunch Conservatives, Frydenberg’s Victorian group, the Rural and Regional Liberals, the Veterans group and the Morrison-Hawke Centre Right in NSW.
The Prayer Group has, at its core, the Prime Minister and some of his key allies including Irons and Robert. While some of its members are Pentecostal Christians like the PM, it’s not an exclusive club – there are also Catholic members and Julian Leeser, who is Jewish.The group also includes members of the National Right such as Andrew Hastie, Amanda Stoker and Jonathon Duniam – underscoring the confluence of interests among the National Right and the Centre Right.
Convened by Peter Dutton, the group shares a philosophical outlook, discusses policy and shares takeaway lunch on a Tuesday.
The Monkey Pod Lunch group – first revealed back in 2015, and named after the tropical hardwood tree table in a meeting room in the ministerial wing of Parliament House – is a group of like-minded National Right conservatives. Convened by Dutton, the group discusses policy and shares takeaway lunch on a Tuesday.
The Rural and Regional grouping of Liberals, convened by South Australian Rowan Ramsey and with at least 19 members, exists to advance regional Liberal interests in contra-distinction to the 21 Nationals MPs. Though they wouldn’t be considered a faction, this Liberal group is designed to ensure the party maintains a strong presence in the bush.
Other groupings include Frydenberg’s Victorian “ambition faction”, which takes in members of the Centre Right and the National Right. This group has 10 members, meets semi-regularly when in Canberra, and works to ensure its preferred Victorian candidates are preselected, but at a national level is split in two.
There’s also a Veterans group with eight members that includes Stuart Robert, Andrew Hastie, Phillip Thompson, Gavin Pearce, Jim Molan, Vince Connelly, Andrew McLachlan and David Fawcett – but not Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, a former brigadier in the Army Reserve.
And there are more?
Then there are the independents. House Speaker Tony Smith and Senate president Scott Ryan (both Victorians) were, back in the day, dyed-in-the- wool members of the Costello faction in Victoria – but that faction no longer exists. Tim Wilson, Jane Hume and Katie Allen are (broadly speaking) members of the Moderates but would be more likely to describe themselves as Classical, or even Menzies, Liberals.
WA Senator Dean Smith now tells colleagues he is a “faction of one”.
WA senator Dean Smith is by disposition an arch-conservative (and monarchist) but he was also a leading proponent of same-sex marriage and now tells colleagues he is a “faction of one”. Fellow West Australian Celia Hammond straddles all three groups – she was backed by the National Right’s Cormann to take Julie Bishop’s seat, is a member of the Prayer Group and holds progressive views on climate change.
Fairfax MP Ted O’Brien is not factionally aligned but is one of the key organisers of a “Team Queensland” group of MPs (which could be considered another grouping). Fellow Queenslander Andrew Laming is considered so mercurial as to be an independent.
The “independents” have plenty in common with each of the three groups – but they also underscore just how fluid Liberal Party allegiances can be.
Read also: Who’s who in Labor’s Left and Right factions?