The New South Wales Liberal state executive is trying to negotiate a plan for branch preselections before Friday to avoid federal intervention, which would almost certainly trigger a legal challenge just weeks from the federal election campaign.
Some members of the state executive have put forward a proposal to hold so-called fast-tracked plebiscites in all remaining seats where there is a challenger. These include seats held by two ministers – Sussan Ley in Farrer and Alex Hawke in Mitchell – and factional power broker Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney.
Plebiscites would also be held in Dobell, Warringah, Hughes and Parramatta.
The proposal calls for truncated timetables for the branch plebiscites. Instead of in- person meetings, the party would hold online town halls where candidates present to the selectors. This would make it easier for selectors to register so they did not have to attend in person, and slim down the vetting process.
The vetting process, done by the nomination review committee, has been a major sticking point in finalising candidates in NSW, amid allegations that prime minister Scott Morrison’s representative on the committee – Hawke – did not make himself available for meetings for nine months. He attended a meeting last week.
Ninety per cent of the 28-person state executive would need to agree to the use of special powers to make the three process changes.
The actual motion calling for plebiscites amounts to following the process set out in the NSW Liberal party’s constitution and will require only a bare majority to pass.
On Tuesday senior members of the party were canvassing support among factional leaders.
However, late on Tuesday night another rival proposal involving skipping plebiscites altogether was circulated to the state executive. It proposed a factional carve-up of the winnable seats and appeared to have the backing of several senior Liberals, including Hawke.
The deal involves saving the three sitting members and putting the former Young Liberal Alex Dore into the seat of Hughes and Michael Feneley into Dobell. It also involves anointing candidates in a raft of other seats including Greenway and Eden-Monaro.
But because it requires use of special powers, it requires 90% support. Some on state state executive said the latest plan was bound to fail, and was actually designed to trigger federal intervention.
Morrison had indicated he does not want to lose his two ministers – Ley and Hawke – and the first solution offers them no special treatment.
Party insiders said Ley would face an uphill battle to win her preselection in Farrer against Christian Ellis, a member of the hard right and a former staffer for Dominic Perrottet.
Hawke’s future would be line-ball, as there had been several recruitment drives to the branches by rival right and centre right factions in Sydney’s north-west.
The two proposals are expected to be put to state executive by a so-called “fax ballot” on Wednesday or Thursday. The federal executive is meeting on Friday and has already warned that it would intervene unless the preselection fiasco was resolved.
It could either appoint an administrator to the branch or stage a more limited intervention by issuing a detailed instruction to the branch on how preselections were to be conducted.
Either option could trigger fresh legal action by members of the state executive, embroiling the party in more controversy. The second option to skip preselections altogether could also trigger action by would be candidates who missed out.
There is also some reluctance by the federal executive, which is mainly made up of state presidents and office holders, to intervene in a state branch, further undermining the morale of party members just weeks before an election.
One option floated was for the federal executive to stage a very limited intervention to save Ley, Hawke and Zimmerman, which would probably not provoke a legal challenge by those determined to see the new, more democratic process for selecting candidates implemented.
Gaining NSW seats may be vital to the Morrison government’s chances of reelection.