Backroom politics crash the party
WHEN Abraham Lincoln famously said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, he didn’t have the Liberal Party in mind. But had he been born 250 years later, he may well have.
Although, in the case of the Libs it’s more of a church than a house. Tony Abbott and Barry O’Farrell may be breathing a sigh of relief after the party’s NSW upper house preselection vote on Friday which saw David Clarke, the so called head of the party’s “religious right” fend off a challenge from the less religious right.
But what will concern them is that Clarke won by only 14 votes, which means in real terms that 7 more people voted for him than David Elliot, the former Australian Hotels Association executive being backed by Clarke’s former staffer Alex Hawke.
The fragile peace that exists in the NSW Liberal Party between the moderates and the hard right groups is just that: fragile, as the vote on Friday demonstrated. It hangs together for no other reason than Clarke decided to end the holy war between the factions after they lost the last State election in 2007.
For O’Farrell, Clarke’s win means the stability he has enjoyed for the past year may continue through to March 2011 when, barring a divine intervention on behalf of NSW Labor, they should win Government.
Weirdly, Clarke’s mortal enemy, the moderate former NSW MP Michael Photios, became one of Clarke’s backers. Perhaps this was maturity. He would have known the consequences if Clarke had been rolled.
But the problem isn’t going to go away for Abbott.
Hawke is a Federal Liberal MP - one of his backbenchers – and the loss on Friday will do nothing to deter his efforts to undermine Clarke and get him out of Parliament.
The source of this acrimony is a mystery to most people. If the Liberal Party was a mother, you’d have to think it is some kind of Oedipus complex.
Hawke was once regarded as one of Clarke’s Knights, working out of his Macquarie Street office, pursuing numbers for his own political future with Clarke’s help. He was every bit as socially conservative as well.
It seems that Hawke, however, has discovered that the future for ambitions young Federal Liberal MPs is through the moderate cause.
And the best way to do that? Dump on your former conservative master.
Of course, this doesn’t explain why Abbott risks being beset with the same factional warfare that plagued the NSW Liberal party room in Opposition.
The religious right is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, they all subscribe to socially conservative views on policy. Stem cells, abortion, injecting rooms, the usual.
But so do half the Catholics in the Labor Party. What about the PM himself?
He is probably the most pious PM the country has ever had, happy to have his photograph taken outside church of a Sunday, as has NSW Labor Premier Kristina Keneally.
The real issue is not religion but factionalism in the Liberal Party, particularly in the federal party room.
In the case of Clarke, he used religion as a branch stacking exercise. Recruiting Balkan Christians wasn’t to get more members of Opus Dei into Parliament, it was about getting numbers in the branches in north western Sydney, to build his political power base.
The problem Abbott faces is the same that faced Peter Debnam after the dumping of John Brogden. The moderates revolted against what they saw as the Right’s takeover of the State’s executive and the leadership.
Highlighting the deep divisions within Abbott’s caucus was the fact that a dozen of his backbenchers wrote letters of support for Clarke, pitting them against Hawke and his forces.
Leading the charge was Abbott himself. But the majority of the others, including Eric Abetz and Nick Minchin aren’t even from NSW.
It should not be forgotten that these were the same forces that overthrew Turnbull. The preselection stoush on Friday night was as much a test of the battle for dominance between the Right and the moderates in Canberra following the vacuum left with John Howard’s departure.
The question is whether the Federal Liberals are destined to follow in the footsteps of the NSW State Libs. It was factionalism that ensured they stayed in Opposition, not policy.
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