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A 30-year war that is once again spilling over destroys Malcolm Turnbull’s claim the Liberal Party is free from factional infighting and backroom deals. By Mike Seccombe.

Friction between factions as disunity threatens Liberal Party

Senator Bill Heffernan.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / LUKAS COCH

William Hughes Mearns was an American poet and pioneer in early childhood education who did a fine line in absurdity. Just like Malcolm Turnbull.

“Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there,” Mearns wrote in 1899. “He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish he’d go away.”

His little nonsense rhyme has been eliciting giggles from kids ever since. As has Turnbull’s, which is not quite a rhyme but is certainly nonsense. In October last year, he told the New South Wales state council of the Liberal Party: “We are not run by factions.” 

The line elicited more than giggles, in fact. It got great guffaws. And groans. And interjections – among them “Come off it!” and “Should have worn gumboots!”

Smiling uneasily, Turnbull took on the interjectors.

“Well, you may dispute that,” he said, “but I have to tell you, from experience, we are not run by factions, nor are we run by big business, or by deals in back rooms.”

The incredulous, somewhat bitter laughter only increased in volume. It had been just a month since the business tycoon had stitched up the backroom deal that rolled his factional enemy Tony Abbott – who was in the audience.

Fast-forward three months and Turnbull looks ever more like the child upon the stair.

The factions whose existence he denied are girding themselves for war and Turnbull is desperately trying to use his authority to stop it happening. Oh, how he wishes they’d go away.

No factions in the Liberal Party? Put that to Senator Bill Heffernan.

“You can’t get a cleanskin up in this party anymore. Unless you’ve bared your arse to the factional warriors you have no chance,” Heffernan says. “The factional thing, as in the Labor Party, has become a business.”

Wild Bill – who is not averse to a bit of partisan head-kicking, once describing himself as John Howard’s “boundary rider” – is replete with stories. Such as what happened in 2011, during a previous outbreak of factional hostilities.

“In NSW the executive election before last involved 500-odd people from state council – two people from each branch and federal and state electorate conference,” Heffernan tells me.

“Half of the ballot papers sent out were collected from people before they were filled out. The factional warriors filled them out. Eighty-two of the ballot papers that were filled out were whited out and redone after they were collected. That’s how crooked it is.

“I got up at state council and said half the people in this room are gutless. You haven’t got the guts to fill out your own ballot papers.”

Other senior party members dispute Heffernan’s figures about the extent of the ballot-rigging, but not the fact that it happened. Both sides were doing it, and the saner operators realised it had to stop. A strange, temporary alliance between the likes of the famously homophobic right-winger Heffernan and the openly gay moderate Trent Zimmerman pushed through change. These days, delegates have to turn up, collect the ballot paper on meeting day and mark it in person, in situ.

But not much has really changed as a result. The bonds of factionalism are as tight as ever, although the alliances between them continue to shift. Indeed, it is harder these days to get a handle on the Lib factions than on Labor’s.

How many factions are there? Four? Five? One senior operator splits the difference.

“Let’s say four-and-a-half: the moderates; the centre right, led by Alex Hawke; the hard right, split between the realistic hard right, led by Dominic Perrottet and Anthony Roberts, and the terrorist hard right, so extreme they are prepared to tear the house down; then there is a small but vocal group led by Jai Rowell and Matthew Mason-Cox, who recently defected from the hard right to align themselves with the moderates.” 

One thing all agree on is that the moderates are now dominant, but beyond that it quickly gets confusing, and dangerous for Malcolm Turnbull. The oldest rule in politics is that disunity is death, and the NSW branch of the Liberal Party is now looking very disunited indeed. Moreover, there is not much time for them to achieve détente: nominations for candidates for the upcoming federal election close in just four weeks. The selection process has to be complete by late March or early April.

Already we have seen dire predictions in the media of “World War III” in the branch, reports of people being leant on to go quietly, threats that unsuccessful candidates might go independent. On and on it goes, and
the process has not even really begun.

The NSW branch has always been particularly fractious, and long viewed by the party establishment elsewhere in the nation as rather crude, as illustrated in an anecdote retold in a piece by long-time Liberal watcher Norman Abjorensen.

The story goes that South Australian Liberal grandee Sir Alexander Downer, posted by Menzies to be high commissioner in London, met with Victorian grandee Neil Brown in the mid-1960s. Said Downer: “You must promise me one thing, Mr Brown. Never let the prime ministership fall into vulgar, Sydney, commercial hands.”

And this was long before the NSW branch really got vulgar. That happened in the early 1970s, with the emergence of Lyenko Urbančič, a Slovenian-born, anti-Semitic, virulently anti-communist, pro-fascist refugee from World War II.

Beginning with the Five Dock branch of the party, Urbančič introduced the first real faction into Liberal politics, and also pioneered the practice of ethnic branch stacking, recruiting others fleeing possible retribution for their extremist past, particularly in the Balkans. They were also heavily Catholic, in what had previously been a very Protestant party.

“When I first started in the party,” says one Liberal long-timer, “there was the emergent right that started as the Captive Nations group. They were organised around Urbančič, but there was a broad range of fellow travellers.”

They came to be known as the “uglies”.

“To those of us who took the view that we were a liberal party, and who were troubled by those who did not accept a diversity of views,” says our veteran, “this presented a problem.”

The right faction attracted other Catholic conservatives, notably David Clarke, the NSW upper house member, and it morphed into the party’s hard right: extremely socially conservative and very disciplined.

It was not just about religion or ideology, of course.

Out of simple ambition, the party veteran says, “a lot of people found it convenient to become part of that group.” Those slighted by the party elite – and it was a very elite party – also joined up, thinking it improved their chances. He cites Bronwyn Bishop as a standout example.

The natural reaction was to form a counter-faction and in due course, in the early 1980s, the liberal Liberals formed what was then called simply “the Group”, which is all it initially was. But over time, and particularly under the influence of Ted Pickering, it also became more rigid.

And the two broad blocs – periodically splintering into various sub-factions – have been battling ever since.

Two observations need to be made at this point. The tendency in all political parties is for the base to be more extreme than the broader community. We see a classic example of this now in the United States, where the base of the Republican Party has moved way out to the right, and a substantial part of the Democratic Party has gone left. 

So it has been in NSW. It’s worth noting that the right has never provided a state premier – Nick Greiner, John Fahey, Barry O’Farrell and Mike Baird are all moderates. The right did produce one successful prime minister, John Howard, but also the disaster that was Tony Abbott.

Any party that strays too far from the centre is courting trouble. In NSW, it all came crashing down in the mid-2000s. The party was finding it increasingly hard to find donors, then it failed spectacularly in the 2007 election, even though Labor was heavily tainted by corruption.

More recently, the Independent Commission Against Corruption has cut a swath through the ranks of the right.

As one senior party operative put it: when factions are reasonably balanced, it helps a party to centre itself between its base and the broader electorate. When one is dominant “you can end up promoting lacklustre and unrepresentative candidates”.

And that’s exactly what happened when the right was dominant. 

And so we come back to the pending preselections. The temptation for the moderates is to exercise their dominance. The concern for Malcolm Turnbull and his agents in the state branch is that such action would cause open warfare.

And there are other complicating factors, too. Several incumbents – Heffernan, Bishop and Philip Ruddock – are widely seen as past their use-by dates. All are in their 73rd year. An electoral redistribution has shifted some electorate boundaries, and with them the support bases of candidates.

So, here’s the way things look today.

Ruddock, currently the longest-serving MP in federal parliament, is sending out mixed messages.

As he told The Saturday Paper: “I prefer to not be commenting about matters until I have something definitive to say. My preference is to focus on how I might make a difference. I don’t believe anyone has an entitlement to be in the parliament.”

But he remains busy within the parliament and may well decide to go around again. If so, the factions tell us, he is likely to face a challenge from Julian Leeser, a long-time wannabe MP from the centre right.

Heffernan is also keeping his own counsel, but might possibly, some say likely, be replaced by Hollie Hughes, also of the centre right and current country vice-president of party. She hails from Moree and has strong rural credentials. 

Bishop insists she is going nowhere, and even her harshest moderate critics concede she is probably safe.

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has also been mentioned as a possible target. She is a seasoned warrior of the hard right, and, says one left faction leader, “having lived by the sword, she deserves to be dispatched by the sword”.

And yet even that statement is qualified: “…to be weighed against the PM’s strong urging that sitting members not be challenged.”

The position of Angus Taylor, seen as a rising star on the right, is complicated by the recent redistribution, which significantly changed the boundaries between his seat of Hume and the adjoining seat of Macarthur, south of Sydney, held by Russell Matheson.

The new Hume contains 40 per cent of voters formerly in Macarthur, and, more significantly, the majority of Macarthur party branches end up in Hume. Reportedly, some are gunning for him.

The big advantage that Taylor and Fierravanti-Wells have is that they are perceived as reasonably able parliamentarians.

Not so Craig Kelly, who holds the south-western Sydney seat of Hughes, under serious threat from Kent Johns, associated with the moderates.

“Kelly’s no star of the party; he’s a bit of a dolt, actually,” says our moderate faction chief.

“Also, he is perceived as having been involved with conservative moves against some state moderate MPs. The problem there is that he is genuinely popular in the electorate. Still, a challenge seems inevitable, no matter what Turnbull says.”

Could that be the spark that sets the whole thing off? The next month will tell.

In the meantime, Malcolm Turnbull will be desperately trying to keep a lid on things. All the while insisting, no doubt, that there are no factions in the Liberal Party.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "‘Unless you bare your arse you’ve no chance’". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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