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Fed: Liberal divisions grow as Turnbull sacks Bernardi

By Sandra O'Malley
19 Feb 2009 7:14 PM

CANBERRA, Feb 19 AAP - Divisions within the Liberal Party have widened after Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull sacked a junior conservative over "disparaging" remarks about a leading moderate.

Compounding what has been a torrid week for the opposition, former minister Tony Abbott had to be pulled into line after appearing to contradict the party position on a rise in the aged pension.

Mr Turnbull confirmed late on Thursday South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi had been stripped of his job as shadow parliamentary secretary because of "disparaging" remarks about a colleague, widely interpreted as being Chris Pyne.

"As leader of the opposition I will not tolerate members of the shadow executive disparaging their colleagues in such a personal and gratuitous fashion," Mr Turnbull said.

Opposition attempts to take on the government have been starved of oxygen this week because of internal tensions, as well as frenzied speculation over whether Peter Costello was given first dibs on the shadow treasurer job.

Friction between Liberal conservatives and moderates has been growing since a frontbench reshuffle on Monday, when Julie Bishop caved to carping about her skills in the treasury portfolio and quit the key post.

Mr Turnbull elevated Joe Hockey to treasury and Mr Pyne to the crucial role of managing opposition tactics in the House of Representatives.

Mr Abbott and former Howard minister Peter Dutton, both from conservative ranks, were reported to have their eye on the job given Mr Pyne.

There was also disquiet over perceived attempts by Mr Turnbull to displace Alan Stockdale as Liberal Party federal president and install former Howard ally, Shane Stone.

Tensions spilled over when Senator Bernardi questioned the commitment of an unnamed MP to the Liberal Party.

"Around 14 years ago, I was invited by the aforementioned parliamentarian to play golf at the Royal Adelaide Golf Club where he was a member," Senator Bernardi wrote in a widely circulated email newsletter.

"In response to my question of why he joined the Liberal Party the MP blithely responded: `I live in a Liberal seat so I had to be a member of the Liberal Party to get into parliament. If I lived in a Labor seat I would have joined the Labor Party'."

Mr Pyne said it was "utterly preposterous" to suggest he had ever considered joining a party other than the Liberals.

"Anyone who knows me, or my history, knows I possess a lifelong loyalty to the Liberal Party," he said.

Senator Bernardi accepted Mr Turnbull's decision but warned the opposition leader had set a new benchmark for behaviour by frontbenchers.

"I've lost my shadow parliamentary secretary responsibilities as a result of me referring to a personal anecdote that had a key impact on my political life and career and involvement," he told AAP.

"I've gone to great pains ... not to identify the individual concerned.

"He's set a very high benchmark and I would expect it to be lived up to by all."

The current Liberal ructions come as former prime minister John Howard addresses a lecture named in his honour in Melbourne on Thursday night.