NSW Liberals’ preselection battle: what is at stake and who will win?

With only weeks before the federal election campaign formally begins, the party faces a huge brawl over the delay in selecting candidates for crucial seats

The New South Wales Liberals will meet on Friday night to consider a peace deal hammered out by factional organisers to finalise much-delayed preselections of federal candidates and preserve the careers of at least four MPs.

But the deal requires a 90% vote in favour from the party’s 27-strong state executive, and there are threats of legal action and revolts in local branches if promised rank-and-file preselections are again bypassed in favour of picks by the factions.

Much will depend on whether Scott Morrison has convinced his NSW colleagues that the peace deal is in the best interests of the party, trumping grassroots democracy. The prime minister usually doesn’t attend, but his views will be made known.

The Warringah rules, championed by the former prime minister Tony Abbott and adopted by the party in 2018 with some changes, gave all party branch members a direct say in who was the candidate, with a balancing 25% of votes for the state executive.

What’s at stake?

The federal election campaign is weeks away. The poll must be held by May, and independents and Labor are out in electorates campaigning.

But the NSW Liberal party has been hamstrung because since May 2021 it has been unable to convene a committee to vet candidates to run in the preselections.

The blame for the delay has been laid at the feet of federal minister Alex Hawke, the centre-right faction convenor who is also the prime minister’s representative on the committee.

With just a two-seat margin going into the election, having the best candidate in every electorate is vital for Morrison, and there is evidence of his interest in preselection outcomes.

Morrison was certainly in favour of getting a high-profile candidate into Warringah, such as the former NSW premiers Mike Baird or Gladys Berejiklian, to take on the independent Zali Steggall. But neither could be convinced. Warringah is one of the seats where there is no candidate. It’s one that may still get a branch vote, but there is really now only one woman left standing: barrister Jane Buncle.

All three factions met last Saturday to hammer out a deal. Among the heavyweights present were the NSW treasurer, Matt Kean, and federal MP Trent Zimmerman for the moderates; Hawke for the centre right; Charlie Perrottet, the brother of the premier, and Dallas McInerney, the chief executive of Catholic Schools NSW, for the right. The PM was represented by one of his senior staff members, Yaron Finkelstein.

The deal they arrived at is complicated, but easier to understand if you look at it in terms of objectives.

Saving (most of) the incumbents

A top priority of the prime minister and the moderates is saving serving lower house MPs. In the seat of Farrer, held by the environment minister, Sussan Ley, there has been an influx of new members in some very small branches. If a democratic process were to be held, she would lose to the right-aligned candidate, Christian Ellis.

Zimmerman is also not safe in North Sydney, and losing a factional leader would be embarrassing. Hawke has concerns about holding his northern Sydney seat of Mitchell.

Under the deal, these three would be endorsed to run again, without facing a ballot, as would the foreign minister, Marise Payne, another key moderate, who is No 1 on the Liberals’ NSW Senate ticket.

The thinking goes that an incumbent is more likely to hold the seat because they have a profile. Both sides of politics tend to rescue sitting MPs. In this case, dumping the factional warriors would cause its own headaches.

However, not everyone is being thrown a lifeline. The deal involves the No 3 Senate position (the Liberals’ second “safe” position because the Nationals get No 2) going to a ballot.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, from the right, faces a challenge from the Liberal senator who filled a casual vacancy, Jim Molan. Fierravanti-Wells wants all Senate positions to go to a party vote and thinks she can win.

But others say Molan is much more popular and that Fierravanti-Wells’s strategy is to cause maximum chaos so she is saved.

Seats with vacancies

The other part of the proposed peace settlement involves some seats where there are vacancies. Some where the outcomes are more predictable would go to a party selection: Bennelong, Warringah and Parramatta.

Those with messier fights would be filled without a ballot.

Morrison would get his preferred candidate, Pentacostal preacher Jemima Gleeson, in Dobell. The right would get their pick, Alex Dore, in Hughes.

The only problem is Dore doesn’t live in Hughes and hasn’t nominated to replace Craig Kelly, who left the Liberals and is now standing for the United Australia party. The logic in the deal seems to be that the right had Hughes before and should keep it.

The two women who have nominated are broadly aligned with the moderates. In the case of Melanie Gibbons, who is the state member for Holsworthy, it would trigger an inconvenient byelection for the premier, Dominic Perrottet, and potentially lead to minority government. That appears to be a bridge too far for all the power brokers.

The local branches in the southern seat are furious.

The Australian reported that the president of the Hughes federal electoral council, John Riad, had written to the state director, Chris Stone, describing attempts to cancel the seat’s preselection by parachuting in a candidate as unacceptable to branch members.

Riad declined to comment.

Fierravanti-Wells has mailed thousands of party members, warning that the attempt to split the Senate preselection was in breach of the party’s constitution and that the rules to bring in democracy were being flouted.

The Australian also reported that one member of the state executive, Matthew Camenzuli, had written to Stone on Tuesday threatening legal action if preselections did not go ahead.

He alleges the failure to carry out preselections and endorsement of candidates was the consequence of Stone pursuing an agenda that is not in the party’s best interests.

So what will happen?

The state president and party elder Philip Ruddock has backed Stone.

“In my opinion, the state director has always acted in accordance with the constitution, and the direction of the state executive,” Ruddock said in a statement.

If the deal goes through, the preselections will be sorted and while there will be much unhappiness in some branches, the Liberals will switch into campaign mode instead of fighting themselves.

If it doesn’t get accepted, the most likely step is federal intervention in the branch.

This is a bit like appointing an administrator to a company or a council, with the federal office taking control and the state executive dissolved. All remaining candidates would be appointed. Many members of the state executive would not want to risk losing their hard-won positions.

There have already been threats of legal action should this occur.

But no one is prepared to predict the outcome. Friday’s meeting will be a doozy.


Anne Davies

The GuardianTramp

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