‘Very healthy’: Malcolm Turnbull backs climate-focused independents running in Liberal seats

<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Malcolm Turnbull has given full-throated endorsement of climate-focused independents running at the next federal election, characterising the looming political contests in Liberal party heartland as a “very, very healthy development”.

The former prime minister and federal Liberal party leader said on Wednesday night “clearly a lot of traditional Liberal party voters feel the party has moved way off to the right on a bunch of issues, in particular on climate, and they are frustrated by that”.

Turnbull said disaffected Liberal voters were “now getting the opportunity to vote for the sort of candidates that share their values”.

“I don’t think coalition governments are a bad idea – I don’t think working with crossbenchers is a bad idea,” the former prime minister said.

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“I can make a case for you that the worst thing that happened to John Howard in politics was getting a majority in the Senate.

“The blood rushed to the head and he decided to introduce WorkChoices … he had no electoral mandate for it whatsoever, he did it because he could do it, and that was a major factor in his defeat in 2007.”

Turnbull said more representative diversity in the parliament meant prime ministers had to explain their positions to other actors in the political system.

“Once you start treating people with respect, you get a better result,” he said.

“There is a tendency for people to tell leaders what they want to hear – as a leader you have to work very hard to ensure people tell you what they really think. So it’s good to have to deal with, whether it is a crossbench in the house or the Senate, where you have to actually … explain your case.”

“I think a bit more diversity in our parliaments would actually make a very big difference.”

Turnbull’s public endorsement of the political insurgency threatening the Morrison government’s parliamentary majority comes as the Climate 200 organisation – which is bankrolling independents challenging Liberal incumbents in their urban heartland –has amassed an election war chest of more than $4m.

Independent candidates will run against Liberal moderates in Turnbull’s former Sydney seat of Wentworth, as well as in North Sydney, Mackellar, Goldstein and Flinders.

Turnbull was speaking on Wednesday night at the launch of a new integrity project from the Accountability Round Table. As well as backing independents, Turnbull urged his former Coalition colleagues to embrace a federal integrity commission that would hold public hearings, declaring secret inquiries could lead to “incredible injustices” being done.

Morrison has proposed that a new federal integrity commission not hold public hearings for political investigations. Despite the prime minister promising for three years he would legislate a commonwealth integrity commission, the legislation establishing the body has not yet been introduced.

Some Liberals are concerned the government’s preferred model is too weak. Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer crossed the floor during the final parliamentary sitting fortnight to support an independent bill for a federal integrity commission, after accusing the government of “inertia” over the issue.

Addressing the current public debate about anti-corruption commissions, the former prime minister drew on his professional experience representing the media mogul Kerry Packer at the Costigan royal commission in the early 1980s.

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He acknowledged his own thinking about anti-corruption commissions had evolved over time. Turnbull told Wednesday night’s webinar his negative experience with Costigan had prompted him to advise Nick Greiner against establishing an anti-corruption watchdog in New South Wales.

Turnbull said he had also previously held the view that there was not much corruption to police in Canberra because federal politicians were not involved in land transactions. He acknowledged that judgment had been “naive”.

Turnbull said politicians were always worried about public hearings in anti-corruption commissions, particularly if they had legal training. But he said secret hearings could operate like “star chambers” and could be hobbled by “group think”.

He said his experience in the Costigan process was “these types of inquiries are more likely to run off the rails if they don’t have public hearings”. Turnbull said there was “no substitute for sunlight”.

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Turnbull’s commentary follows Morrison’s decision to launch a full-frontal attack on the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (Icac). The prime minister has characterised Icac as a “kangaroo court” and claimed former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian had been hounded out of office.

Morrison has been trying to persuade Berejiklian to run in Warringah to try to wrest the federal seat back for the Liberals.

Warringah is held by the climate-focused independent Zali Steggall who defeated Tony Abbott in 2019. Earlier on Wednesday, Morrison acknowledged Berejiklian may not run.

The former premier resigned voluntarily in September after Icac revealed it was investigating whether she broke the law by failing to report a reasonable suspicion of corruption on the part of her ex-lover, the former Wagga Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.

At the time, Berejiklian expressed frustration over the timing of her departure, but told reporters she had “no option but to resign the office of premier”. She has denied any wrongdoing or that she had reason to suspect Maguire. Icac is yet to hand down its findings.