MALCOLM TURNBULL'S call last year for the Coalition to support an apology to the stolen generations cost him the leadership of the Liberal Party, the powerbroker Nick Minchin said yesterday.
Senator Minchin, who was instrumental in Brendan Nelson's narrow victory in the leadership ballot, said Dr Nelson had done the right thing by consulting the party room before taking a stance.
"The issue with the leadership was not so much the apology per se, but the question of the role and the authority of the party room," Senator Minchin said. "Many did feel we wanted a leader who would respect the authority of the party room and not announce changes in policy without proper consultation with the party room."
The day before the ballot, Mr Turnbull said when asked on radio that he supported Labor's plan to say sorry.
His supporters said he was expressing a personal view, but it was used against him and vital numbers drifted to Dr Nelson.
Senator Minchin, a former cabinet minister, said he was not criticising the former prime minster, John Howard, whose views were frequently foisted on the party. "But there was a feeling after 12 years of government, where often out of necessity the government made decisions without being able to or fully consulting the party room, many in the party room felt they were being handed a fait accompli."
He said Dr Nelson's performance in the party room when discussing the issue was "one of the best" he had witnessed.
The comments sparked fresh bickering, with the Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne saying: "It's a pity Senator Minchin wants to continue a leadership ballot which was finalised last year. As Senate leader, he needs to play a role in unifying the party."
Dr Nelson's initial cumbersome handling of the apology worsened divisions in the party.
Mr Turnbull's supporters noted yesterday that the party had spent a damaging two weeks arriving at the very position Mr Turnbull had advocated from the outset.
"The debate was over, it happened around Nelson, there was no leadership at all," said one. Dr Nelson and his supporters were "trying to make a virtue of his own indecision".
Labor was still dithering yesterday, unable to say when the exact wording of the apology would be released or if every MP and senator who wished to speak to the motion would be allowed to do so.
The Coalition's support for the apology is "in principle" and subject to the final text. Dr Nelson dislikes the term "stolen generation" but Kevin Rudd said this was non-negotiable.
The Coalition will not force the issue, but Dr Nelson and others plan to complain about the phrase when they speak on the motion.
At another party-room meeting yesterday, the Coalition was split over a push to prevent Labor from fulfilling its mandate of abolishing individual Australian Workplace Agreements.
Dr Nelson and his deputy, Julie Bishop, argued yesterday that the Coalition, which will control the Senate until July 1, should force Labor to retain AWAs but underpin them with a new and improved safety net.
The hairsplitting has made some in the party nervous and several MPs argued against the move in the party room. Labor's bill abolishing AWAs will be introduced next week.
■ The Governor-General has thrown his weight behind a formal apology by Parliament to indigenous Australians for the stolen generations.
Speaking after the launch of the 2008 Year Book of Australia in Canberra yesterday, Major-General Michael Jeffery told the Herald, "It's a very good thing for us to do.
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