NSW Liberals told federal intervention is required to prevent constitution breach

Members of the state executive are concerned the move will allow Scott Morrison’s centre right faction to install preferred candidates

The New South Wales Liberal party has been told a federal intervention is needed to prevent it becoming in breach of its constitution, raising concerns that such a move would allow Scott Morrison’s preferred candidates to be installed for the federal election.

In an extraordinary meeting of the NSW division held on Wednesday, the state director, Chris Stone, presented legal advice suggesting federal party intervention was required to reappoint members of the state executive until the party’s postponed annual general meeting was held in March.

However, amid a fractious standoff over preselections in NSW, the prospect of federal intervention was met with fierce resistance, with some members of the state executive threatening a supreme court challenge.

The right faction’s Matthew Camenzuli is understood to have presented competing legal advice at the meeting that suggested the federal intervention was not necessary.

Moderate members of the state executive are also understood to hold concerns the move could result in an effective federal takeover of the division, which could allow Morrison’s centre right faction, represented by Alex Hawke, to install their preferred candidates before the election.

The latest twist in the long-running feud over preselections, which affects a number of key federal seats including Warringah, Hughes and Dobell, comes as factional chiefs had been negotiating for a ballot that would allow plebiscites to take place in certain seats, while protecting incumbents.

According to multiple sources, members at Wednesday’s meeting were presented with legal advice claiming the executive could risk becoming in breach of the division’s constitution because an annual general meeting that was due to happen by the end of February had been delayed.

To avoid the breach, it was suggested that the party’s federal executive be asked to step in to reappoint current state executives.

But that suggestion led to an escalation in the already deep hostilities between the rival factions of the party in NSW because of suspicions a federal takeover could see the party’s state factions cede control.

Earlier this month speaking on Sydney radio station 2GB, Morrison raised the prospect of federal intervention unless the executive dealt with preselections in a number of key seats.

Members of the right faction came to Wednesday’s meeting armed with their own contradicting legal advice arguing the state executive could continue to operate until it holds its annual general meeting currently planned for the end of March.

In a statement, the NSW Liberal party president, Philip Ruddock, said the proposal was merely aimed at addressing the functioning of the executive.

“Due to the significant challenges associated with holding an AGM in late 2021 [and] early 2022 related to Covid restrictions, the NSW division is taking proactive steps to ensure elected officials on its state executive can continue to serve until the AGM can be held in March,” he said.

“This does not affect the functioning of the NSW Liberal Party itself.”

While members of the right faction have been pushing for local plebiscites to install candidates in a number of key seats, the preselections have been delayed by Hawke because of concerns a number of sitting MPs could lose their preselection in a ballot of local members.

Those current MPs including Hawke, fellow minister Sussan Ley in Farrer, and key moderate Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney.

Party figures have been holding out hope of reaching a compromise deal which would see the rival factions divide the spoils in a number of NSW seats including Warringah and Hughes, while protecting the government’s sitting MPs.

Sources on the right told the Guardian they were fully prepared to “take things further” if an attempt at federal intervention was made, including the prospect of court action.

Members of the state executive are expected to hold a vote on Thursday to resolve the matter.

The dispute over federal preselections comes after the party’s poor showing in Saturday’s NSW state byelections, which saw the Liberal government lose the previously safe seat of Bega and suffer a 19% swing in Gladys Berejiklian’s former seat of Willoughby on Sydney’s north shore.

Although the seat is expected to remain in the government’s hands once postal votes are counted, the swing has focused attention on the government’s slim hold on a working majority in the NSW parliament.

The Coalition has effectively been in minority since early last year, after two MPs – Gareth Ward and John Sidoti – were sidelined over separate scandals. Now on the crossbench, those two MPs have remained an electoral buffer inside the parliament, continuing to vote with the government, but the loss of Willoughby would mean they require another vote.

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To avoid that, the Guardian can reveal the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, has struck a deal to ensure supply with three key cross-benchers.

After a meeting with Perrottet on Tuesday three independents – Greg Piper, Alex Greenwich and Joe McGirr – all agreed to give the government a guarantee on supply.

Greenwich said the supply deal would not extend to issues related to “corruption and maladministration”, and that the independent MPs would “judge every motion and piece of legislation on its merits”.

Piper put it in plainer terms, saying he had warned the premier: “Maybe you will lose some votes.”

“We also told him, as with Gladys Berejiklian, we’ve still got every right to not support legislation or to support non-government bills,” he said.

“That’s life in minority government. They might not like it but that’s the way it is.”


Michael McGowan and Sarah Martin

The GuardianTramp

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