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As questions grow about the government’s handling of both sexual assault claims and the vaccine rollout, Scott Morrison has been focused on shoring up his numbers. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: While women marched, the PM was doing factional deals

In the same week thousands of people rallied around the country to protest against the sexual assault, harassment and discrimination of women, the prime minister’s office was firmly focused on a far less public crisis.

Two days after the March 4 Justice, Scott Morrison’s principal private secretary called in a factional Liberal player from New South Wales to discuss one woman in particular: Melissa McIntosh, the member for the marginal seat of Lindsay.

McIntosh is a member of Morrison’s centre-right group in parliament, known colloquially as the Morrison Club – a guaranteed vote for the prime minister.

The meeting between Morrison’s adviser Yaron Finkelstein and conservative factional figure and Catholic Schools NSW chief executive Dallas McInerney focused on a growing threat to McIntosh from conservative Liberals in her seat, which could also ensnare Morrison’s chief factional lieutenant, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke.

On March 11, conservatives had taken over McIntosh’s division, seizing all key leadership positions at the annual general meeting of the Lindsay federal electorate conference (FEC).

In the wake of this takeover, the Liberal Party in the prime minister’s home state has erupted in factional brawling. Hawke’s politicking has angered both the conservatives and the dominant moderates.

The situation has prompted threats of legal action and comes as Liberal MPs in safer, wealthier seats in NSW are refusing to fundraise any further for those they label “ungrateful” – that is, marginal-seat incumbents and candidates from the Morrison–Hawke centre-right.

But some Liberals are puzzled at the energy the prime minister and his factional backers are willing to devote to protecting and promoting his current and would-be parliamentary supporters, at a time when the nation faces economic and health crises and the vaccination challenge, and his government is weathering rolling scandals regarding the treatment of women.

The prime minister and his inner circle are clearly concerned that the conservatives’ new-found power in Lindsay could see them not re-endorse McIntosh for the next federal election and try to install one of their own instead.

They say they have no intention of removing her. If they did, McIntosh’s preselection could be reinstated by a vote that would involve the wider state division – with Morrison’s intervention if necessary – but this would still bring the risk of embarrassing headlines about the Liberal Party moving to dump a sitting female MP, one of Morrison’s supporters, at the same time the prime minister is talking up female quotas.

McIntosh is among those Morrison Club members attracting the ire of both moderates and conservatives. Granted leave from parliament recently to support her flood-ravaged community, she is nevertheless being criticised for failing to raise money for her own re-election or to engage enough with constituents to maximise her chances.

It was six days after the FEC takeover when Finkelstein called Dallas McInerney to a meeting at Parliament House. Morrison’s strong objection to the conservatives’ takeover of Lindsay was high among the issues discussed. Finkelstein wanted the conservatives to agree to withdraw from key FEC leadership positions, primarily the positions of president and secretary and ideally also treasurer.

The secretary’s position provides access to membership lists, the treasurer’s to the financial books. McInerney is understood to have been amenable.

McInerney is among those touted as a possible replacement for disendorsed Liberal Craig Kelly in the seat of Hughes, which adjoins Morrison’s seat of Cook.

But he has told others what he really wants is a senate seat – which would require dumping third-ranked Coalition candidate and long-time incumbent Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

Morrison is keen to remove Fierravanti-Wells, a controversial conservative and critic of the prime minister who has spoken out against him on a range of issues. Some Liberals have not forgiven her for speaking against former prime minister Tony Abbott to author Niki Savva and taking part in ABC TV’s Four Corners program “Inside the Canberra bubble” last year.

McInerney is said to have been willing to negotiate on the Lindsay FEC, but Fierravanti-Wells and others were refusing to give up any of the positions.

After the takeover in Lindsay, the conservatives insisted they were interested only in using their new clout in the seat to wield power more broadly, at the state level, not in the electorate.

But the Morrison forces were not satisfied with the assurance.

Last week, Morrison held another meeting in his office to discuss the Lindsay situation. He attended this time, along with Hawke and Foreign Minister and Minister for Women Marise Payne, who is based in Western Sydney and is the duty senator for the seat of Lindsay.

On the night of Tuesday, March 23 – the same day Morrison held a news conference to apologise to women for some of his initial responses to the sexual assault allegations and declare he understood their concerns – Melissa McIntosh emailed the Liberal Party’s state director, Chris Stone.

McIntosh said the FEC election had involved “the appearance of people from nowhere near Lindsay, invalidly attending the AGM”.

She effectively accused the conservatives of having won illegally and urged Stone not to accept any documentation from the new office-bearers.

McIntosh wrote that the prime minister, Senator Payne and Minister Angus Taylor “are in concurrence about this, including supporting me and the FEC”.

Taylor’s electorate of Hume is paired with Lindsay under an arrangement matching safe seats with marginals to fundraise and provide volunteers. Taylor was also guest speaker at the AGM where the conservative takeover occurred.

Subsequently, McIntosh lodged a formal complaint demanding the Lindsay conservatives be suspended from the party for up to five years and the vote recast. The move has so enraged the conservative office-bearers that one of them has now threatened to sue her for defamation.

“It is rapidly moving towards lawyers at 10 paces,” one Liberal observed.

McIntosh told The Saturday Paper her first priority was helping constituents hit by the recent floods to rebuild.

“I’ll continue to work hard for the community I love, with a focus on local jobs, shorter commute times, lower energy prices and supporting our small businesses,” she said. “This is what the people of Lindsay care about.”

Neither Scott Morrison nor Alex Hawke responded to requests for comment before press.

The Lindsay furore is just the latest in a series of takeover moves of FECs in various seats, aimed at Liberal factions insuring against each other. Some also aim to wind back Alex Hawke’s influence.

There is frustration at the way Hawke – as Morrison’s representative on the Liberal Party’s state executive – wields his power and at Morrison’s reluctance to rein him in, as well as at the candidates and members they choose to promote and protect.

Sources in both the moderate and conservative camps told The Saturday Paper they are concerned Melissa McIntosh will struggle to hold her crucial seat in a campaign that could cost the Liberal Party up to a million dollars in Lindsay alone – a serious drain on party coffers.

Moderates in rich seats are refusing to continue fundraising for marginal Morrison-controlled seats because some candidates and incumbents have done little fundraising for themselves and have shown little appreciation for the help.

They also allege that Hawke is being given public credit for generating money that was actually raised by others.

Liberal sources pointed to a leaked list of highest and lowest fundraisers published in The Australian newspaper in January.

The Saturday Paper understands the leak enraged some Liberals, who felt it did not accurately reflect the efforts they had made.

According to the leaked list, those struggling with fundraising included Environment Minister Sussan Ley; MP for Robertson, Lucy Wicks; and NSW senator Hollie Hughes, all of whom are Morrison supporters. It also included the Member for Hughes, Craig Kelly.

Scott Morrison has already lost some political skin for defending MPs who the rest of his party have complained are a drag on their prospects.

He did so with Kelly ahead of the 2019 election. Morrison told colleagues before he won the Liberal leadership in 2018 that he agreed Kelly should go.

But after securing the prime ministership, he went all out to stop Kelly being dumped. Morrison insists he was unaware of the growing concern others held at the time about Kelly’s adviser Frank Zumbo, who has been accused of recruiting teenage girls as office workers and grooming and sexually harassing them. Zumbo has denied the allegations.

Kelly had strong support from high-profile broadcaster Alan Jones, on whose programs he appeared regularly. He had also threatened to quit the party and sit on the crossbench, which would have obliterated the government’s one-seat majority.

Two years later – and after Morrison again initially resisted calls to jettison him as the debate over women exploded – he was told he no longer had the prime minister’s support. Kelly has done as he promised and quit the Liberals, cutting Morrison’s wafer-thin majority.

Some speculate Morrison will install a woman to replace Kelly in Hughes.

Two women have been mentioned. The first is art teacher Breeanna Till, whose husband, soldier Brett Till, was killed in Afghanistan and whom Morrison helped obtain government compensation for his death.

The second is NSW state MP Melanie Gibbons, the wife of previous would-be Hughes challenger and former Morrison ally Kent Johns.

At an event to mark a decade of Liberal–National government in NSW, held at the Kirribilli Club in Sydney on Wednesday night, state Liberal powerbroker Michael Photios singled out Melanie Gibbons, joking that she was “the next member for Hughes” and further fuelling speculation.

Poaching Gibbons would infuriate the Berejiklian government, whose slim majority will be at risk from any byelection in Gibbons’ marginal state seat of Holsworthy.

This may have added venom to the public slanging match that erupted on Wednesday between the federal and state governments over the slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations and who was to blame, with state ministers accusing federal ministers of leaking against them to The Daily Telegraph.

The growing frustration with what some see as the counterproductive influence of Alex Hawke has united former rivals against the Morrison camp.

“There’s an alliance between the left and right,” one Liberal says. “Hawke’s behaviour on the state executive has had [senior Liberals] appealing to the prime minister’s office to do something about it.”

Other sources confirm repeated protests.

Concerns about the tactics of Morrison’s allies follow complaints about the Prime Minister’s Office backgrounding against those causing him political damage.

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who has accused a colleague of raping her in a ministerial office two years ago, has lodged a formal complaint that Morrison’s staff backgrounded journalists against her partner, former journalist David Sharaz, after she aired her concerns about how the government handled her assault allegation.

This week, The Australian Financial Review published an attack piece on news.com.au journalist Samantha Maiden, who broke the Higgins story. AFR journalist Aaron Patrick justified the piece that critically dissected Maiden’s work, personal history and personality by revealing she had been the target of the inaccurate anecdote Morrison raised last week about one unnamed female News Corp journalist harassing another.

The accusation against the then unnamed journalist emerged when Morrison lashed out at the media during his mea culpa news conference on understanding women.

Patrick revealed that Maiden had had a corridor argument last year with a younger female colleague about the then upcoming press gallery committee election. Contrary to Morrison’s assertions, the incident did not occur in a bathroom, was not related to sexual harassment and did not result in a formal complaint. He later apologised.

Morrison’s misreporting of the story has prompted some to ask why the prime minister was bothering to collect and peddle nasty gossip about the journalist whose work had sparked public outrage against his government on the treatment of women.

It’s just one of many questions Liberals are asking about their leader’s political priorities.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Exclusive: While women marched, the PM was doing factional deals".

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