“Not again”, Liberals moan, as bombs go off in key state
In mid-August Tony Abbott received a telephone call from a senior NSW Liberal Party official during which, amid a flurry of F-words, the Opposition Leader was given a warning from his home town.
He was told that if a factional barney over preselections was allowed to spread it would be World War III. Arthur Sinodinos, who last weekend was to have stepped down as NSW Liberal division president, was given the same message, according to party sources.
A month later it might not exactly be World War III but the political equivalent of tactical thermo-nuclear devices have been detonated.
The Liberal Party’s top figures have been taken to the Supreme Court by other Liberals and lost. Some $300,000 in the NSW division’s election campaign money reportedly has been spent on fighting legal challenges.
The loss meant the state council’s annual general meeting, already deferred and set for the weekend, was put off again and the change-over of branch president put off as well, possibly for more than a month.
Senator Sinodinos, now Mr Abbott’s parliamentary secretary replacing Senator Cory Bernardi and thus an even more influential adviser, would rather be doing his job in federal politics than riding herd on state branch tensions.
Further, there have been preselection decisions postponed in eight federal seats in NSW. Seven of those seats are not of great significance but one is the hugely marginal western Sydney electorate of Greenway, which the Liberals narrowly missed taking from Labor in 2010 because of that season’s factional set-to.
Had a Liberal candidate been in place in Greenway six months before the election—rather than six weeks—the swing against Labor might have been greater than the 7.4 per recorded and Tony Abbott might now be prime minister.
All this has erupted with little public notice because the party has largely kept a wrap on the fighting, which was the purpose of that earthy and prophetic telephone call to Mr Abbott back in August.
But a decision in the NSW Supreme Court is difficult to ignore, particularly when the 22 nominal defendants include Premier Barry O’Farrell, Liberal division secretary Mark Neeham, Senator Sinodinos, Michael Photios, Peter McGauran and Senator Bill Heffernan.
The plaintiff in proceedings before Judge William Nicholas was much less well-known. It was Denis Pogson of the NSW central coast electorate of Robertson.
Mr Pogson and others in that seat wanted the Liberals to introduce a system of local plebiscites to select election candidates, rather than have a candidate imposed by the party organisation.
It wasn’t that the party organisation opposed the idea. It would not put in on the agenda for discussion.
An attempt was made at court sponsored negotiations to settle the question of who keeps the gate leading to important forums. But on Friday there was no clear solution and the AGM was just one casualty.
In factional terms, the hard right of the party is backing the plucky rebels from Robertson. It’s the moderates who have been cast as the unresponsive power brokers. Well, that’s the right’s view of things.
Whatever perspective is take, the Liberals are spending a lot of time, money and energy attacking each other in the party’s largest state and the state which they hopes will produce the next Liberal prime minister.
It is roughly 12 months to the scheduled election, and this disruption is not a good start to the coming campaign.
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