The Right stuff: why shellshocked NSW Liberal moderates are fearing factional fights

Tim James’s preselection in Gladys Berejiklian’s former NSW seat shows the growing influence of the hard right in the state

Last week, a prominent member of the Liberals’ right faction, Tim James, snared the safe New South Wales state seat of Willoughby replacing the former Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian, a leading moderate, in the lower north shore Sydney seat.

No one saw it coming. The lower north shore is a moderate stronghold within the party and the popular former Willoughby council mayor Gail Giles-Gidney, a moderate with a high local profile, was seen as the frontrunner.

Giles-Gidney had the endorsement of the people who count in those parts: Berejiklian and the moderate powerbroker Trent Zimmerman, the federal MP for North Sydney.

But by the end of a three-hour preselection meeting attended by more than 100 members of the local branch and state executive, moderates were left shellshocked.

The new “Warringah rules” for choosing the candidate via a plebiscite of local members, with a 25% voting component from the state executive, had delivered an unexpected result.

James, an acolyte of the former prime minister Tony Abbott with a record of pushing development of gas and opposing higher carbon emissions reduction targets, was on his way to becoming the member for Willoughby.

Just a suburban soap opera? Or a sign of something deeper happening in the NSW Liberal party?

Peace and prosperity

In other states, notably Western Australia and South Australia, there has been an influx into the party of conservative members recruited from Pentecostal churches and other religious groups. It has fundamentally changed the Liberal party in WA and caused tensions in SA. In Queensland there were similar concerns in 2020 about the growing influence of climate-denying Christian conservatives.

In Victoria, there have been highly publicised reports of organised attempts at branch stacking by the conservative right, including recruitment drives run out of MPs’ offices.

But in NSW, at least on the surface, there appeared to be peace within the warring factions, of which there are three: the moderates, the hard right and the smaller centre right. The hard right is dominated by conservative Catholics with the premier, Dominic Perrottet, its poster boy.

The centre right, controlled by the federal immigration minister, Alex Hawke, is more closely aligned with Pentecostal and Protestant churches and boasts Scott Morrison as its high-profile member.

The moderates are led by the NSW treasurer, Matt Kean, and Zimmerman.

The animus between the factions a decade ago, when John Brogden was the state opposition leader, is legendary: brawls in local branches, fierce branch stacking and chronic destabilisation of the parliamentary leader. During this time the right also split, mainly on sectarian lines.

But after a decade in the wilderness a desperate Barry O’Farrell convinced the factions they should declare a detente in the interests of winning government.

The peace was cemented under Berejiklian. Hard-right leaders like Perrottet, who has been a central player in the factions since he was in the Young Liberals, and Damien Tudehope, who commands influence in the north-west of Sydney, prospered, becoming treasurer and finance minister. David Elliott, a leading figure of the centre right, has risen too. So did the leading moderates such as Kean.

At least in cabinet, the factions had checked their weapons at the door.

But there was always the question of who would succeed Berejiklian.

The new deal

About three years ago, Kean is said to have struck a further deal with Perrottet to make Perrottet premier, even though he came from the right, while Kean would become treasurer. Until that point the moderates, the biggest faction, had laid claim to the premier’s job.

Kean and Perrotett have never confirmed the deal, but subsequent events appear to confirm it.

Despite a senior moderate, Rob Stokes, nominating for premier after Berejiklian resigned, Perrottet won with support from Kean’s bloc of moderates. Both men have now risen to the top before turning 40: Perrottet as premier and Kean his treasurer.

But has the deal emboldened the right and diminished the moderates?

“It’s been the best infiltration I have seen in my life,” says one disillusioned moderate. “Rather than beat us up, they got us to do what they want.”

How much Perrottet’s rise has strengthened the right is debated within the party – there have so far been no attempts to push a conservative social agenda.

“Perrottet is not offensive to most moderates – he mainly sticks to economic issues and he’s endorsed net zero by 2050,” says a senior moderate.

“I don’t think he’s sitting watching Sky after Dark night after night. He’s probably reading Margaret Thatcher’s biography – and we can live with that.”

But the new rules for preselecting candidates have provided an avenue for increased influence and there are signs right operatives are active.

“The right are taking the car out for a spin to see what’s possible,” says one factional player who asked not to be named.

Abbott’s original Warringah rules establishing branch member plebiscites to choose candidates were substantially modified before being adopted.

Safeguards against branch stacking, such as being a member for two years and monthly limits on new members signing up, were included. A quarter of the vote was allocated to the state executive council in the broader party interest.

James’s preselection, only the second under the new rules, raises questions about whether the moderates have underestimated the right.

Grassroots action

James, a long-time participant in the faction, had hoped to succeed Abbott in the federal northern beaches seat of Warringah until the independent Zali Steggall made it unwinnable for a person with a track record of support for fossil fuels.

James has also made two unsuccessful tilts at the state seat of North Shore, also regarded as moderate territory. So Willoughby was a real surprise.

There were about 110 selectors assembled for the preselection on 12 January. James came second to Giles-Gidney in the first round of voting but edged her out in the second round.

“He was just hungrier for it,” said one attendee.

By all accounts he gave a strong speech and demonstrated his policy depth as a former director of the Menzies Research Centre.

Some say Covid-19 played a role, with older members who supported Giles-Gidney reluctant to attend in person.

The NSW Liberal party said: “There were three outstanding candidates contesting the preselection, with Tim James selected by members to represent the party at the upcoming election, based on his vision for the community.”

James had a bloc of 11 Young Liberals from the right who were eligible to vote under party rules that allow Young Liberals to attend branches where they live or adjoining branches. They included Thomas Ryan, who is married to Francesca Perrottet , the premier’s sister; Anthony Swales, an electorate staffer for state minister Anthony Roberts; Pierre Okosdinossian, a graduate of Redfield College, the conservative Catholic school attended by Perrottet; and Benedict Kang,

In 2018 Kang wrote in the conservative Spectator: “At the heart of the political process is grassroots action … Something is astir in the air, and the winds of change, of reform, are blowing. This article may very well be prophetic, and I sincerely hope that it is. Join a party, be the conservative voice, change the tide of battle. Believe me, there has never been a better time to be young, restless, and right-wing.”

There is clear evidence elsewhere that conservatives have heeded the call and signed up to branches in anticipation of the Warringah rules.

Branches that had just five or 10 members have seen numbers swell to the 30s in the past two and half years.

The MP most under threat is the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, in the seat of Farrer in southern NSW. She is facing a challenge from conservative Christian Ellis, a member of the right faction, who moved to Deniliquin from Sydney. He previously worked for Perrottet and the former federal resources minister Matt Canavan.

He also ran as a candidate for Family First against the Liberal Philip Ruddock, earning him a suspension from the party.

Ellis was one of the organisers of a right group known as the NSW Reformers, which gained publicity in 2019 over a plan to recruit 5,000 members to the Liberal party through conservative churches.

In Farrer, Ellis has been running on water issues and several members of the local group “Speak up for Water” have joined local branches.

Unless there is an intervention by the state executive or by the prime minister, Ley will lose, local Liberals say.

Escalating competition

Since the Willoughby upset there are also concerns about what could occur in preselection for the federal seat of North Sydney, held by Zimmerman, which overlaps Willoughby.

Until now, moderates have brushed off a preselection challenge from the right’s Hamish Stitt and the centre right’s Jessica Collins as a distraction with no chance. Now no one is so sure. Zimmerman declined to comment.

And in the north-west of Sydney there are also renewed concerns about the seat of Mitchell, currently held by the centre right’s organiser, Hawke, but under challenge from the right.

In a sign of the escalating competition between the factions, the Hills shire mayor, Michelle Byrne – backed by the centre right – found herself without a position on the Liberal ticket for the local government elections.

“I don’t agree with the process that has taken place within the Liberal party or how we got here,” Byrne said in her resignation statement.

So has there been a recruitment drive since in anticipation of greater democracy under the Warringah rules?

A spokesman for the NSW Liberal party said numbers had steadily increased over the last five years but declined to give details.

“The party welcomes new members from across the community, and we have had members continue to join us from a diverse range of geographic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds,” he said.

With a federal election due to be held by May, the NSW Liberals appears to have adopted a strategy of delaying remaining preselections rather than risking the uncertainties of the Warringah rules. There is constant talk of a peace deal to carve up the seats using urgency powers.

“Whoever holds the parliamentary seats ends up being reflected in the culture and control of the party,” says one long-time factional player.

“So what happens in this election will determine how much influence the right has in NSW. If North Sydney and Wentworth were to go [to independents], they are two very important seats held by the moderates,” he says.

“While Morrison remains prime minister, then the centre right is a force, but they are the smallest group and query what happens if he is no longer the leader,” he says.

And if the right claim more seats as well as the premiership, their influence will increase.

“After the Willoughby result,” says a senior party member, “no one is at all confident about what’s happening.”


Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

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