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Having seen off myriad interventions and a plan to parachute Kate Carnell into her seat, Bronwyn Bishop is not going anywhere. By Karen Middleton.

The failed factional campaign to unseat Bronwyn Bishop

Member for Mackellar Bronwyn Bishop.
Credit: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

In Tuesday’s Coalition party room, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was exuberant about the prospect of fighting an election later in the year.

When the low-key deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Warren Truss endorsed his remarks with a monotone “I’m excited too”, the gathering erupted with laughter.

“It’s obvious,” one MP quipped.

“Tone down the excitement, Warren,” another urged.

The goodwill and patience afforded the Queensland-based Nationals leader in unveiling his plans for retirement – replaced in the role by Barnaby Joyce – are in stark contrast to the brawling, arm-twisting and undermining still going on in the Liberal Party in Turnbull’s home state of New South Wales.

Hard-right conservatives are calling the whole thing a test of Turnbull’s authority. Moderates respond that they would say that.

Whoever you believe, the prime minister faces a considerable challenge in trying to stop the Liberals’ NSW division from devouring itself.

The NSW factions, which Turnbull said at last year’s state conference don’t run the party – a line delivered less than an hour after the moderate left had used its numbers to overturn plans to introduce rank-and-file preselections – are recruiting potential challengers to incumbent colleagues they see as past their use-by date.

Former speaker Bronwyn Bishop and assistant minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells have been highest on their list. But both are fighting back.

Sections of the NSW Liberals have been looking to recruit women – not to challenge Labor MPs in marginal seats, but to challenge the incumbent women that they want to remove in their own party.

Kate Carnell approached

The Saturday Paper has confirmed that several weeks ago the moderate wing of the NSW Liberals approached former ACT Liberal chief minister and now head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Kate Carnell to run against sitting Liberals for federal preselection.

Among the options put to her were running for either the senate or the house of representatives in a safe seat – which in practice meant challenging either Fierravanti-Wells or Bishop. Having just accepted a new government job that was soon to be announced – and was, last week – Carnell declined.

“I have no intention to stand in the coming election in any position,” Carnell told The Saturday Paper. “I am looking forward to my new challenge as small business ombudsman.”

She went on: “I think it’s really good that the various groups in the Liberal Party are looking for good women candidates. We need women in the Liberal Party.”

Two of the key women the party looks like keeping are the same ones they were hoping Carnell might unseat.

Bishop’s own so-called “soft right” faction has approached her, again, to consider retirement. Furious at having been cut loose from her prized speaker’s job by the former prime minister, Tony Abbott, she is simply refusing to go. She blames Abbott and his office for the way things turned out for her.

One observer said she was staying to pursue “redemption” and to put time and other hoped-for achievements between the helicopter incident and her retirement. She declined to respond to inquiries from The Saturday Paper.

Abbott and his supporters are similarly angry with Bishop, who they see as having betrayed him by voting for Turnbull in last year’s leadership ballot.

“She is the most extraordinarily treacherous person for what she did,” one said.

Some suggest that for decades, Bishop’s insurance against being done over has been to make sure she knew which of her colleagues’ closets contained skeletons and precisely what they looked like. Either way, she has dug in and it has worked.

Bishop had planned a succession in Mackellar, involving her adviser Damien Jones. But Jones is now associated with the ill-fated helicopter flight that cost Bishop the speakership, so the factions aren’t willing to endorse him.

His wife, NSW state member Natasha Maclaren-Jones, has also been touted.

But as of this week, Bishop is determined to fight on.

Dick Smith threat

After the father of the house, long-serving Liberal MP Philip Ruddock, announced that he would conclude his parliamentary service at the next election to serve in a specially created position of special envoy for human rights, attention has turned again to Bishop and her political future.

Ruddock’s new job serves two purposes. It helps resurrect Australia’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018 – a bid that The Saturday Paper has been told then prime minister Abbott had effectively shelved – and it nudges Ruddock out of parliament in a dignified manner to make room for new blood, expected to take the form of his ex-adviser and now next-door neighbour, the former executive director of the Menzies Research Centre Julian Leeser.

There’s no such job offer for Bishop, and in the wake of the $5000 taxpayer-funded helicopter ride none appears likely.

The Department of Finance investigation into her travel expenses is understood to be moving slowly – not surprising given the onerous nature of the task. Bishop is being asked to account for her travel over the entire past decade, a longer period than others have had to review.

But many of her colleagues don’t want to wait that long.

“She needs to go,” said one who is not from NSW. And of the argument she’s put previously that she wants to stay on to fight terrorism, another said: “It is the smallest political fig leaf in the history of Liberal politics.”

Having failed with the Carnell plan, the most likely preselection challenger is a bloke: moderate Jason Falinski. Few expect him to beat Bishop. She is confident she has the numbers.

Bishop has the support of the “soft right” faction, which is remaining loyal to her thus far, wishing she would retire gracefully but upholding the view that she should be allowed to go at a time of her choosing.

Businessman Dick Smith has confirmed he still intends to mount a challenge as an independent if she is the Liberal candidate, arguing the party should put someone younger in the safe seat.

At almost 72, he is hardly the younger option. But he believes Bishop, whom he has known since childhood, is no longer the best person to serve the electorate.

He is confident he could win the seat and some Liberals fear he is right. They also fear having to pump scarce funds into what should be a safe seat to defend it.

“If Bronnie wins preselection and decides to run, I will then give due consideration, and it’s very likely I will stand as an independent,” Smith told The Saturday Paper.

He insists nobody in the Liberal Party has put him up to it.

Fierravanti-Wells

In Fierravanti-Wells’s case, she is caught in a factional war between her own group, the so-called “hard right”, and the ascendant moderates. In the middle, and wielding considerable influence, the “soft right” comprises supporters of Treasurer Scott Morrison, led by the member for Mitchell, Alex Hawke.

The factional jockeying is all about the power of numbers for future influence on the party’s policies and general direction. In Morrison’s case – in the vein of past treasurers, including Paul Keating and Peter Costello – it’s about having factionally aligned supporters in the party room or others who owe him a favour should he one day make a tilt at the leadership.

Fierravanti-Wells was the No. 1 Liberal senate candidate for NSW when she previously faced voters six years ago and, despite the rumblings, her position has now firmed to retain the spot. She has been a key link between the government and the Muslim community as assistant minister for multicultural affairs, involved with Ruddock in leading consultations on de-radicalisation. With Ruddock retiring, her role arguably becomes more important.

In Tuesday’s party meeting, Northern Territory Country Liberal MP Natasha Griggs spoke out in support of Fierravanti-Wells’s contribution, saying consultations she had arranged in Darwin late on a Friday afternoon in January had attracted hundreds.

The threat to her senate spot appears to be subsiding. And the spot behind her, held by Bill Heffernan, is expected to go to the soft right’s Hollie Hughes – with Heffernan now expected to retire of his own accord.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells told The Saturday Paper: “Whilst I have very good support for my senate preselection, I am continuing to work hard to secure my re-endorsement and to lead the Coalition senate ticket.”

Apparently unrelated to the NSW shenanigans, Clive Palmer lobbed a slightly uncomfortable question about women at Turnbull in parliament on Wednesday.

“Does the government think Liberal women or members are less worthy or of lower merit than their Liberal male colleagues, or do you say you believe in gender equality and fail to do anything about it?”

Palmer has been no fan of Bishop and released a video last year urging her to quit over the taxpayer-funded helicopter ride that eventually forced her resignation.

Palmer insisted his question to Turnbull wasn’t related to any state or woman in particular.

“Most women in political parties are getting endorsed in marginal seats,” Palmer said later. “Not safe seats.”

In inner and outer metropolitan Sydney, Liberal women don’t have many of either – in fact, just one of each. Of the 15 seats the Liberals hold there, the two held by women are the marginal western suburbs seat of Lindsay, which Fiona Scott won in 2013, and Bishop’s safe-as-houses Mackellar.

Despite the past year’s controversy, Scott defends Bishop’s achievements as a Liberal trailblazer.

“Younger women coming through owe a lot to Bronwyn because she really broke a lot of glass ceilings for us,” Scott said. “And we have a lot to thank her for.”

Meanwhile, the opposition isn’t making a fuss about the number of Liberal women in Sydney because its record is no better.

Like the Liberals, Labor has just two incumbent women in the metropolitan area: Tanya Plibersek, in the safe Labor seat of Sydney, and Michelle Rowland, in Greenway, whose victory was delivered when the Liberal candidate, Jaymes Diaz, imploded politically during the campaign.

In his response to Palmer, Turnbull insisted the Liberal Party was keen to increase the number of women in its ranks.

“Mr Speaker, I can say that we are committed as parties to seeing more women in parliament and more women in the executive. And that is something that we’ve… that we will always move towards, we will always work towards.”

But some of his colleagues are more motivated by factional politicking than affirmative action.

Factional war

There are those also questioning Abbott’s decision to continue in politics and recontest his seat on Sydney’s northern beaches. As a former prime minister, he remains unchallenged.

“Maybe they should run Kate Carnell in Warringah,” one Liberal said, mostly joking.

It’s not only the women in the frame in NSW. The brawling has become nastiest in the seat of Hume, held by rising member of the right Angus Taylor, and moderate Russell Matheson’s seat of Macarthur.

After the Australian Electoral Commission’s redrawing of the boundaries in NSW electorates to reflect the shifts in population since the previous election, Matheson has been threatening to leave his now-harder-to-win seat and challenge Taylor for preselection in Hume instead. And if he did, he’d be likely to win.

Matheson’s threat is backed by NSW state member and self-styled moderate powerbroker Jai Rowell, whose wife, Belinda, works for Matheson. Relations between Taylor and Matheson have deteriorated and are at a very low ebb. Turnbull has been speaking to individuals involved in all of the spats, and is offering his firm support for incumbents staying in their existing seats.

Partway through this week, it appeared those counselling against a move that could cost the Liberals both seats may have persuaded Matheson to desist. By week’s end, Matheson was again determined to run.

But Taylor was also being touted for future elevation in a reshuffled ministry. The Liberal Party’s federal executive is now considering intervention to protect him.

A possible challenge to another incumbent, Craig Kelly in Hughes, was still an open prospect with moderate Kent Johns the most likely challenger.

Turnbull, who had traditionally not been factionally aligned, is ideologically closest to the moderates but trying to walk a middle road, urging the various groups to stop damaging the party and leave incumbents where they are.

“Malcolm needs to say, ‘We need to sort this out and we need to do it soon,’ ” one MP said. “If Abbott wanted reformation in the Muslim religion, Malcolm could fight for a reformation of the NSW factional system.”

Former prime minister John Howard was fond of referring to the Liberal Party as a broad church. But in its heartland of NSW, the parishioners are not very happy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "The failed campaign to dynamite Bishop". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.