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Liberal insiders say the election will be won or lost in NSW, where chaotic preselections show the PM has lost authority over his party. By Mike Seccombe.

Has Scott Morrison lost control of his party?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Kirribilli House earlier this year.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and then NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian at Kirribilli House earlier this year.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

This is a story about power and factionalism and the next election. It begins with a man whose name is hardly well known, even among political obsessives. But his story serves as a case study of how Scott Morrison’s autocratic efforts at factional control in his home state could help lead his government to defeat at next year’s election. So it’s worth telling, as one small example of a much bigger problem.

These days Bob Dwyer calls himself an “unemployed citizen”. Until recently, however, he was the mayor of Sydney’s second city, Parramatta, one of six Liberal councillors. After last weekend’s local government elections, there are none.

“We’ve gone from technically being in some sort of control to being nothing,” he says.

He attributes the wipeout to factional politics. At the heart of it is Scott Morrison’s New South Wales consigliore, Alex Hawke.

Before we get to the detail of Dwyer’s story, though, a little about Hawke. Since 2007, Hawke has been the member for the electorate of Mitchell, part of the outer north-western “Bible Belt” of Sydney. He is currently a member of the Morrison cabinet and minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs. Like Morrison, he is of Pentecostal faith. More importantly for this story, he is the leader of the Morrison faction in NSW, the centre-right, and is Morrison’s appointed delegate on the party’s state executive.

The other two, larger factions are the right, sometimes called the hard right, which is the faction of Premier Dominic Perrottet, and the moderate or left faction, led by the treasurer and minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean.

Hawke is reviled by both.

As one senior right faction member says, Hawke “has used his time as Morrison’s representative on the state executive in an endeavour to advance their factional position to the detriment of both the conservatives and the moderates – to the point now where the conservatives and the moderates are in an alliance against Hawke. And that means against Morrison.”

The anti-Hawke feeling goes beyond institutional opposition. It is personal. Like his prime ministerial mentor, Hawke is hard-charging and abrasive. While the left and right have in recent years come to a sometimes-uneasy agreement in sharing the spoils of power, Hawke has a winner-takes-all approach. It has come back to bite him, his boss and the party.

The Parramatta story is illustrative. It began, says Dwyer, with a structural problem that impeded efforts to select candidates for the council elections.

“For the Liberal Party to be able to preselect people,” he says, “they have to have what they call a local government conference, an LGC. At the state level they’re SECs [state electoral conferences] and the federal level FECs. What they are is a gathering of delegates from all the branches in the region.”

Until recently, Dwyer says, Hawke controlled the numbers on the LGC in Parramatta. Therefore, he controlled the selection of candidates.

“The issue was that the local government conference in Parramatta region fell into, for want of a better word, disrepair. So they wrote to the state executive and said we needed an extraordinary meeting of all delegates so that we can re-establish the LGC in Parramatta.”

At that meeting, by a margin of just one vote, it was decided not to re-establish the LGC. Some of Hawke’s numbers had failed to turn up, and so he lost control. The job of selecting candidates was referred upwards to the party’s state executive – which is to say, to a body on which Morrison does not have the numbers.

This was vehemently opposed by the Morrison–Hawke faction. One of its number, Martin Zaiter, a Parramatta councillor and member of the state executive, took action in the Supreme Court, challenging the power of the executive to decide candidates. He lost.

“So then you had the same factional fighting … in the state executive about who should be preselected,” Dwyer says.

Eventually, says Dwyer, the state executive made a curious decision. They said: “It’s all too hard. It’s, it’s just bringing the party into disrepute. We’re not going to preselect anybody.”

The executive instructed potential candidates not to run as independents. But Dwyer, who had already nominated as No. 2 on a ticket with Georgina Valjak, decided to run anyway.

“Anyway, she won. Effectively, on Parramatta council, there is now one unendorsed Liberal conservative person … and that’s it. The rest are Labor, Greens or independents.”

Dwyer missed out but he is pleased to see a woman at last on council.

As far as he’s concerned, the whole disaster was simply a “get square” by the left and right, against the Morrison–Hawke faction. But others argue it was much more than that.

“Parramatta council was just a cesspool for developers,” says a senior moderate.

And it is not the only local government area seen as such. Four other Sydney councils also went to last week’s elections without endorsed Liberal candidates, although some ran as independents.

“These are the councils that the executive thought had corruption risks, so rather than endorse candidates, we just didn’t run,” says the moderate source. “The left and right came together to squeeze out at the local government areas to stop the Alex Hawke candidates running.”

There is no suggestion that Hawke or Dwyer is corrupt but, says the source, “There’s this cabal of sorts of Liberal Party colourful characters that get onto council and then look after [developers]. It’s just horrible.”

Whatever the real reason for the executive’s decision – concern about corruption or factional bloody-mindedness – the extraordinary fact remains that the majority of the party was prepared to sacrifice elections to nobble the minority, which also is the prime minister’s NSW support base.

And this has major ramifications for the upcoming federal election, which will be all about NSW.

“The only pathway to winning – and it’s very narrow – is to gain ground in NSW,” says one Liberal Party numbers man. “And by gaining ground, I don’t just mean picking up one or two seats; I mean probably five.”

He foresees a “train wreck” in Western Australia. At the state level, the party was all but wiped out at the March state election. It will possibly lose as many as three seats there in the federal poll.

“Victoria remains a massive challenge,” he says. “And it’s a possibility we’ll lose a seat or two in South Australia and Tasmania.”

A couple of seats in Queensland are also looking shaky.

The numbers man lists off the most prospective seats. Parramatta is winnable “if we’re capable of running a credible campaign there with a good community-based candidate”.

“Macquarie’s held by Labor on only 300 votes. Even Labor would concede that [Andrew] Constance would be favourites to win Gilmore. Greenway, Paterson, Hunter and Dobell are other seats the party will be looking at.”

“And of course, there’s Warringah,” he says, referring to the once blue-ribbon Liberal seat now held by independent Zali Steggall.

Earlier this week, Morrison and others including John Howard were enthusiastically talking up the prospect of former premier and moderate faction member Gladys Berejiklian running against Steggall.

Party sources have since told The Saturday Paper she is all but certain not to do so. Morrison apparently got the same message, and by Wednesday he was talking it down again. On Thursday she told him she wasn't running. 

Without Berejiklian, the chances of the Liberals retaking Warringah dramatically recede. It’s also somewhat embarrassing for a leader to openly court a candidate, only to be snubbed.

Morrison has other bigger problems, though. One is that the state branch has moved to a plebiscite model of preselection, giving branch members greater power over the choice of candidates.

The change, long sought by the party’s right, and husbanded through by Tony Abbott, theoretically diminishes the power of factional chiefs to dictate outcomes.

In reality, it makes sitting members more at risk of a challenge. And it presents a bigger threat to smaller factions, which means the Morrison–Hawke centre right.

Indeed, according to sources in both the moderate and right factions, Hawke can no longer be sure even of the numbers in his own seat, as well as a number of others including Farrer, held by Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

“And that,” says one right-winger, “is why he will do whatever it takes to save his own scrawny backside.”

Unless and until there is a plebiscite in Mitchell, it is impossible to know if this is an accurate assessment. What is clear is that Hawke and Morrison are concerned about what might happen in a range of seats if the party rank and file start making decisions.

“Hawke doesn’t want plebiscites. Morrison doesn’t want plebiscites. You know, why would you want democracy breaking out?” the source says.

The same message comes from the party’s left. And the evidence – of repeated attempts by Hawke to delay the process of candidate selection – supports their contention.

The problem, says a senior moderate, is that before plebiscites can take place party head office must undertake a process of review of those who wish to run for preselection – essentially a vetting process to ensure potential candidates are eligible.

“And the prime minister’s representative or executive is none other than Alex Hawke. And Hawke’s strategy has been to delay the preselections, so that they can then come and say, ‘Well, we can’t do the processes, we’re going to have to intervene.’ ”

These delays would allow Morrison and Hawke to impose candidates, regardless of what the local branches want.

“But,” says the source, “the only reason the prime minister would need to intervene is because his hand-picked representative has stymied the entire process.”

All this has caused ructions at the highest levels of the party. Perrottet has told Morrison that under no circumstances would he support federal intervention in the NSW division of the party. The state division has gone so far as to threaten legal action if he tries.

Instead, it is expected Hawke and Morrison will be offered a deal. The right and left will agree to the endorsement of sitting members: Paul Fletcher in Bradfield, Morrison in Cook, Sussan Ley in Farrer, Angus Taylor in Hume, Alex Hawke in Mitchell, Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney and Fiona Martin in Reid.

In return, the expectation is that rank-and-file preselections will go ahead in a raft of other seats, including Bennelong, Warringah, Gilmore, Parramatta and Dobell.

Maybe the plebiscites will endorse the “captain’s pick” candidates that the centre right hoped to parachute in – such as Pentecostal preacher Jemima Gleeson in Dobell. Maybe they won’t. Hawke and Morrison will just have to live with it.

The hope is to have all the preselections sewn up by early February. While this timetable would still allow for the possibility of a March election, it would not leave much time for candidates to organise their campaigns.

It is perhaps another sign the election could be held off until the last possible moment. One source fearlessly predicts May 21, but no one really knows – maybe not even Morrison himself.

The government’s problems are further exacerbated by a growing number of well-funded well-credentialled independent candidates, running mostly against moderates in seats that have previously been considered heartland.

The signs of fracturing are numerous. To cite just one, in the past week: Fiona Martin clings to Reid by just 3 per cent, and faces not only a well-connected Labor opponent in Sally Sitou but also lawyer and sports administrator Natalie Baini, who had been a candidate for preselection but quit the party last week, publicly complaining about sexism and the candidate selection process.

In short, NSW is not yet a disaster for the government but it remains very messy. Morrison and Hawke are fast discovering the limits of their power to control events.

Bob Dwyer, having lived through the shambles of last week’s council elections, sees them also. He worries the same warfare that played so badly in Parramatta will play badly at the federal poll.

“I think it’s just the way NSW seems to operate somehow, unfortunately.”

These days, he’s watching from the outside. He says he has no further aspirations to elected office. He’s out of there, jumping ship, looking for new life, not endlessly “pushed around by the factions”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Has Scott Morrison lost control of his party?".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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