A wave of recriminations is sweeping through the NSW Liberal party over the division’s performance and the delays in preselecting candidates for NSW federal seats that resulted in most being chosen only weeks before last month’s federal election.
Blame is being levelled at the unwieldy, faction-riven state executive, at the former prime minister Scott Morrison and his “captain’s picks”, and at his delegate on the state executive, Alex Hawke, who had been widely blamed for holding up preselections by failing to make himself available for months to vet candidates.
Some are also blaming Covid lockdowns, which interfered with the party’s ability to hold branch plebiscites using the new “Warringah” rules, designed to give members a much bigger say.
The 2022 federal election was the first time these were operational, but Covid restrictions meant the party was unable to hold rank and file preselections, which in some cases would have required up to 800 members to gather face to face.
The result was a wave of losses in seats where candidates and sitting members were only endorsed just days before the election was called.
These included Gilmore, where Andrew Constance lost by just over 200 votes, North Sydney, where Trent Zimmerman lost to independent Kylea Tink, and Warringah, where Morrison chose anti-trans campaigner Katherine Deves to run against popular independent Zali Steggall after other candidates pulled out.
As a result of the Deves appointment, several members argued that there was a backlash in moderate seats that were then won by teal independents.
“The late picks definitely cost us seats,” said one prominent moderate. “Trent had money sitting in his campaign account, which he couldn’t spend because he hadn’t been endorsed.
“Then we had Katherine Deves picked for Warringah and that probably cost us North Sydney and Wentworth.”
He pointed to the 2019 post-election review by former senator Arthur Sinodinos, who recommended that candidates be in the field nine to 12 months before the election.
One of the few rank and file selections was held in Bennelong but, again, only a few weeks before the election was called. Simon Kennedy, a former McKinsey partner, beat former staffer Giselle Kapterian, who was well known locally. Kennedy lost to the former Ryde mayor Jerome Laxale, who ran for Labor and was also well known.
Some of the criticism was more pointed however, with several people blaming former immigration minister Alex Hawke directly for the delays.
As the prime minister’s representative on the committee that vetted candidates, Hawke failed to make himself available for meetings for more than nine months, effectively holding up rank and file preselections.
When time ran out, Morrison then asked the federal executive to intervene and install his choices.
In an email to party members on Tuesday, New South Wales Liberal senator Andrew Bragg and women’s council delegate Jane Buncle (who had initially planned to run for Warringah) proposed several changes to the party’s constitution to prevent a repeat of the stalemate over candidate selection.
“Your rights as members of our great party were taken away before the election,” Bragg and Buncle wrote. “The Liberal Party is Australia’s most successful grassroots movement. It is not a dictatorship and we will not be successful without the engagement of you, our members.”
“Your right to have your say and select our candidates is the most important reason to be a member. Yet this precious right was taken away as our constitution was twisted and buckled. We are determined to ensure that this never happens again.”
Hawke, however, has fiercely rejected the suggestion that he and the former prime minister engineered a crisis in preselections by using loopholes in the party’s constitution.
He said Morrison had been forced to act after the conservative right faction had tried to “take out” two sitting female members: Sussan Ley in Farrer and Melissa McIntosh in Lindsay.
“This was the genesis of the problem and he was most exercised about it,” he said.
Morrison stepped in to save one of his few women cabinet ministers and had also installed Jenny Ware in Hughes and Deves in Warringah. Hawke and Zimmerman were also beneficiaries of the prime ministerial intervention.
Instead, Hawke blamed the factions and state executive.
“The single biggest challenge for the NSW executive is an executive of 27, diverging into three groups, and where 90% votes are required,” he said.
“It is unmanageable,” he said.
Others agreed that a 27-strong executive was too large, and that the requirement to override normal processes with a 90% vote meant that just three members could block any special motion.
But they were angered by Hawke’s argument that it was the factions who were to blame.
“The right and the moderates tried again and again to put forward a timetable for preselections to happen. On each occasion it was the prime minister’s representative who failed to make himself available,” one member of state executive said.
“The main offender was Hawke. This concern about female candidates is just a pretext,” they said.
There were also criticisms of the state president, Philip Ruddock, and the division staff.
“The division needs a complete overhaul. The division played political games against a sitting prime minister. We need a president who will stand up to the factions and a state executive of professional managers and experienced people,” one senior member said.
Others blamed the factions themselves. “We’ve caught the Labor disease,” said another senior figure, referring to the power of the factions.
A review of the Coalition’s election loss is being conducted by former federal director Brian Loughnane and Senator Jane Hume. They should expect a large number of submissions from NSW party members who were appalled at the preselection fiasco that gripped the party.