As Tony Abbott campaigns to reform Liberal preselection in NSW, it has emerged his own branch hired a headhunter to find his replacement. By Karen Middleton.

Planning for Tony Abbott’s exit

Former prime minister Tony Abbott in Canberra.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott in Canberra.

After Tony Abbott lost the prime ministership in September 2015, a small cross-factional group of Liberal Party members and supporters in his Warringah electorate began searching quietly for their next local member.

Without consulting or notifying Abbott, the group of eight set up an unofficial committee to seek a high-quality candidate to contest what is among the bluest of blue-ribbon Liberal seats on Sydney’s northern beaches.

The Saturday Paper has been told the group engaged a recruitment consultant to cast the net widely for a good woman or man who could attract broad support from the membership and beyond.

They were not aiming to force the party’s former leader out. They believed he deserved to choose when he retired.

But the group, described as mostly ideologically “middle-of-the-road people”, wanted to be ready with an alternative potential local member should the incumbent decide to quit.

They wanted someone not beholden to a faction. And they did not want Abbott – or anyone else – to be able to hand-pick and shepherd in his successor.

The exercise demonstrates the concern among some New South Wales Liberals at the power struggles unfolding within their party and the agendas being run. More specifically, it highlights the statewide battle over how NSW Liberal candidates are preselected – a battle that forms the backdrop to a new round of guerilla warfare from the ousted former prime minister.

Beyond the state party’s processes, Abbott’s campaign is aimed at the party’s national policy direction and at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Abbott and his conservative NSW colleagues are campaigning for candidates to be chosen through internal party plebiscites instead of as they are now, through preselection councils made up 60 per cent of local party members and 40 per cent of delegates from the state executive and state council.

While the local party members are generally a mix of moderates and conservatives, the moderates dominate the state executive and state council, controlling most of the state party’s organisational positions and making it increasingly difficult for conservatives to win preselection when vacancies arise.

That ideological mix is reversed among the party’s paid-up members.

Believed to number 11,400 in NSW, about two-thirds of Liberal Party members are conservative. The conservatives believe that one-vote, one-value plebiscites will boost their representation. They also believe it’s fairer. So do a range of others.

But some in the party are concerned the level of conservatism inside the Liberal Party does not reflect the majority views of voters who support the party at elections.

The conservatives regard themselves as being on a mission to win back the party’s directional soul and head off what they see as a betrayal of its foundational values and principles.

But many on the left and in the centre fear that letting increasingly zealous conservatives dominate the party’s agenda will ultimately lose it electoral support and spell its death.

This is occurring in an environment where Turnbull’s government clings to a one-seat majority and where, for the first time, there are several alternative conservative party options. Liberals across the party believe people must be given better reasons to join and stay.

Ahead of a special NSW party convention starting on July 21, to vote on a range of organisational issues, Abbott is using the plebiscites issue as a platform to tell supporters they deserve to have their voices heard – and to suggest Turnbull’s government is not listening.

Two senior NSW senators who have criticised Abbott’s interventions share his support for plebiscites, if not his motivation.

Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos told The Saturday Paper it was “good that the NSW division is reviewing the best way forward on plebiscites”.

“It’s always important to take initiatives to maximise participation in our party,” he said.

But having declared this week that he “can’t control Tony Abbott”, Sinodinos is stepping up his criticisms.

Sinodinos says Abbott’s right and privilege to speak out is qualified.

“That must, of course, not occur in a way which appears to overshadow the mission of the government,” he said.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a conservative, accused Abbott last week of “rewriting history” on some of his own policy positions. Having retained her position on the senate ticket despite inter-factional manoeuvring, she is a long-time supporter of shifting to plebiscites.

But she also delivered further veiled criticism of Abbott’s motives.

“I would welcome every member of the NSW Liberal Party being able to vote in my next senate preselection,” Fierravanti-Wells told The Saturday Paper.

“Democratisation of NSW Division is about party reform. It is supported by the prime minister, former prime ministers, former premiers, and ought not be conflated with other agendas or hijacked for other purposes.”

It is true that the moderate-aligned Malcolm Turnbull also favours switching to plebiscites. But he and others fear that without safeguards, a switch to membership numbers alone will facilitate branch-stacking.

The conservatives in particular have ready-made networks in the churches and ethnic communities that could be tapped to recruit instant members on paper and en masse. If that happens, the moderates fear they stand to lose both their power – which conservatives object to being centralised around influential lobbyist Michael Photios – and their influence over the party’s current policy direction.

Two prominent NSW Liberals, assistant minister Alex Hawke and backbencher Julian Leeser, have drafted separate but similar compromise proposals that would impose conditions on members’ rights to vote, based on longevity and activity.

Under their proposals, it would be much harder to stack branches with newly signed-up members if they had to prove up to four years’ membership and quantifiable engagement in the party before they could vote.

Some moderate Liberals insist the existing NSW system has produced quality community candidates, whereas the processes in other divisions such as Victoria and South Australia that hold plebiscites have still favoured political staff.

More conservatives would mean stronger coalface advocacy for policies they support and opposition to those they don’t, such as legalising same-sex marriage and boosting renewable energy to address climate change.

More moderates in parliament would likely mean more support for such proposals and obstacles to others, such as restricting Muslim migration.

Tony Abbott is using the plebiscites campaign and his status as the nation’s most prominent backbencher to challenge the government’s policy direction and fuel voters’ frustration at being ignored by those they see as out-of-touch elites in Canberra.

“For too long, the party hierarchy has expected the rank and file to turn up, to pay up and to shut up,” Abbott told a Sydney gathering last weekend, to shouts of “hear, hear”.

In a speech in Melbourne on Monday, Abbott said the government was “at a low ebb” and needed “help”.

“Even at this late stage, I think our first best option is to ensure that the existing government, the existing cabinet, the existing prime minister, are as good as they possibly can be,” a recording leaked to Fairfax Media revealed Abbott as saying.

“And one of the reasons I’ve been speaking out a bit lately is not because I particularly want to change the personnel but because I think we’ve got to just move the direction a little bit, okay? And if we can’t because of the senate entirely change the direction, at least don’t lose a sense of what the bloody direction should be.”

His supporters insist he is only trying to return the party to traditional Liberal values. But Abbott’s critics don’t buy it. Some believe supporters are trying to whip up tensions with the Nationals.

Some also believe Abbott may now be undermining his own objective. If the aim is to oust Turnbull by forcing party members and colleagues to choose between prime ministers, he may get what he wants – but not how he wants it.

Senior conservatives are lining up to rebuke Abbott.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg have all accused him publicly of undermining the government.

Those MPs facilitating Abbott’s appearances are attracting private criticism.

West Australian MP Andrew Hastie, Assistant Minister for Cities Angus Taylor and Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar are being singled out.

Hastie and Taylor both conferred extensively with Abbott on his annual Pollie Pedal charity ride over Easter.

Hastie hosted the former prime minister in his electorate recently, where they met with Catholic educators angry at the government’s schools funding changes.

Taylor and Sukkar hosted Abbott at events this week. The well-attended Melbourne branch meeting Abbott addressed was in Sukkar’s electorate. He has described it as routine and it was, in the sense that MPs regularly invite senior government figures to speak.

But in the current context, nothing about Abbott’s public utterances is routine. Nor is it intended to be.

When a video of Turnbull was screened at Angus Taylor’s Sydney event last weekend, billed as a “call to arms” for “forgotten” Liberals, many attendees booed. As has become routine, a recording leaked.

Other government colleagues are appalled that Liberal Party members would respond like that to their own prime minister. Those booing were equally appalled at what they say is Turnbull’s lurch to the left.

Sukkar and Taylor appeared separately on Sky News on Tuesday – Sukkar twice – to discuss the issues Abbott was raising.

“We’re all Liberals, we’re all people that want to further the interests of our party – not for its own ends but for what we think the Liberal Party does for our country,” Sukkar insisted. “And I know that’s the case for the prime minister, for all of the ministry and, of course, the former prime minister.”

The appearances ensured the debate continued.

“It’s been noted,” one senior Liberal told The Saturday Paper.

Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger is among those calling for talks between Abbott and Turnbull or their emissaries to sort out the situation.

But those close to Turnbull don’t believe it would change anything. For the same reason, he has no intention of returning Abbott to the ministry.

They say some of Abbott’s closest ministerial friends, including Mathias Cormann and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, have already appealed to him, to no avail.

Some close to Turnbull say he has concluded he can’t influence Abbott’s interventions so he tries, where possible, to ignore them.

“He’s reached a state of zen in his own mind about it,” one says. “What can he do?”

Before leaving for Germany, France and Britain to discuss North Korea, climate change, global cybersecurity and trade, Turnbull did not entirely succeed at deflection.

“I’m not going to comment on the gentleman you described,” he told ABC Radio’s Matt Wordsworth when he was asked about Abbott’s Melbourne speech.

The former prime minister had disparaged the government’s “taxing and spending” budget as a “second-best” effort thanks to the senate.

Turnbull said it was “a great Liberal budget” and while getting everything through the senate was never going to be possible, his government had succeeded where his predecessor’s had failed. Pressed on whether Abbott was undermining him, Turnbull again refused to use his name.

“I know your interest in the gentleman you describe,” he said. “… This is your interest. My focus is on the 24 million Australians I’m elected to represent.”

Senior ministers are mobilising behind Turnbull. Treasurer Scott Morrison dismissed Abbott’s interventions as “background noise”.

By Thursday, with Turnbull en route to Europe, acting Prime Minister Joyce dissected Abbott’s senate obstruction arguments, also noting the Abbott government had faced the same problem.

“And I’ll be quite frank,” he told ABC Radio National. “We’ve had a lot more success with this one.”

Late this week, Josh Frydenberg, on whose energy portfolio Abbott has focused most, joined the fray.

“Tony Abbott was elected by the people of Warringah at the last election and he deserves his place in the parliament articulating the best interests for his constituents,” Frydenberg told ABC Radio.

But, he said, Abbott had to ask himself: in his constant critiquing of the government, who is benefiting most?

“Is it the party members who want to see a continuation of the government?” Frydenberg asked. “The answer is no. Is it my parliamentary colleagues who want to see them retain their own seats and the government stay in office? The answer is no. Is it the Australian people who want to see a government talk about how we’re boosting funding for education and health, infrastructure and the people with disabilities, as well as protecting the national security? The answer is no.”

Abbott and his supporters know exactly who is benefiting. Frydenberg spelled it out: “Bill Shorten, the alternative prime minister”.

What frustrates Abbott’s colleagues most? That this seems to be precisely the idea.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2017 as "Planning for Abbott’s exit".

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

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