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As a deal over Liberal preselections falls apart, there is a suggestion Alex Hawke is trying to engineer a crisis and force a federal takeover of the NSW division. By Karen Middleton.

Inside the Liberal Party’s open warfare

This week, members of the New South Wales Liberal Party state executive approached the prime minister, desperate to break the impasse over preselections in his home state.

The party was aghast at terrible poll figures and the leaking of private text messages between Gladys Berejiklian and an unnamed – allegedly federal – cabinet minister in which the former NSW premier allegedly described Scott Morrison as “a horrible, horrible person” and the minister called him “a fraud” and “a complete psycho”.

The issue for the state executive was more nuts and bolts. Just weeks from the official election campaign, they don’t yet have candidates in key seats. As one senior federal Liberal puts it: “This has to be resolved.”

Under the state division’s constitution, special meetings are required to endorse each candidate ahead of a federal election. The four-person nomination review committee meetings are supposed to include the federal party leader’s official representative. But the meetings for key seats have still not been held.

“It is very frustrating,” Morrison told Sydney Radio 2GB’s Ray Hadley on Wednesday morning. “And there’s some childish games going on there.”

While few dispute games are afoot, views diverge on exactly who is playing them.

For many months, Morrison’s representative, his long-time, centre-right political lieutenant Alex Hawke, has been persistently unavailable for the meetings.

Key state executive members – and some at the federal level – are running out of patience. In appealing to Morrison directly, they are canvassing options including him attending himself or dispatching a different representative. Some are starting to wonder whether, constitutionally, they might be able to hold the meetings with his seat empty. There is talk of legal action.

Along with this week’s public blast at Morrison from NSW treasurer and leading moderate Matt Kean, for refusing to help fund a NSW small-business bailout package, the growing anger suggests the factional tensions in the Liberal Party’s most powerful state are teetering on open conflict. Before it even begins battling Anthony Albanese’s ascendant Labor, the NSW Liberal Party urgently needs to resolve the war with itself.

So why would Hawke – and Morrison – refuse to complete the candidate confirmation process, potentially jeopardising the party’s chances at such a crucial state?

Critics among the moderates and hard-right offer the same answer: factional and personal power.

The closer to the election they get without candidates confirmed, the more pressure there will be on the party’s federal executive to intervene and install handpicked candidates – without the branches getting to vote.

“This has been a stalling tactic for Alex Hawke to run down the clock to get federal intervention and get his candidates installed,” says a NSW Liberal, one of many holding this view.

But according to NSW Liberals across the factional spectrum, it goes further than that. They suspect Hawke wants the division declared officially dysfunctional. That would allow the party’s federal executive to take over, effectively appointing an administrator – someone approved and therefore controlled by the federal leader or, in reality, his lieutenant. It would give Hawke the effective power to personally choose and install candidates for the next two years, through the coming federal election, the run-up to the next one, and the state election in between.

In other words, these Liberals allege, Hawke is trying to engineer a crisis that would entrench his political power in NSW.

“Alex is the great uniter of the Liberal Party,” one NSW Liberal says. “He brings people together in common hatred.”

The Saturday Paper was unable to obtain comment from Alex Hawke before time of press.

But if this is the plan, it faces one big obstacle: it appears the federal executive is disinclined to do it.

The intervention powers were added to the party’s federal constitution in 2007 and have never been used. Designed to salvage dysfunctional or unfinancial state and territory divisions, the rules set a high bar for access, requiring a 75 per cent majority of both the executive and state and territory party presidents.

Morrison has already raised the possibility, to a lukewarm reception. At an online federal executive meeting in November, one of the architects of the 2007 reforms, Howard government minister Nick Minchin, responded that they were not designed to bypass candidate processes, effectively warning Morrison against the idea.

Asking federal executive members to intervene is risky. Agreement could spark even more opposition among party members in NSW and possible cause outrage more widely. Refusal means publicly rebuffing their own prime minister on the eve of an election.

The Saturday Paper understands there is not currently a big enough majority to support an intervention motion. So Hawke – and Morrison – are stuck.

 

The preselection fight within the NSW Liberals has several fronts.

There’s finalising the process in seats where only one person has nominated. There are the seats that have more than one prospective candidate. Overlaying these is whether sitting NSW Liberal MPs should be automatically re-endorsed or face a vote. Then there’s what happens with positions on the senate ticket. All are part of a ferocious contest involving factional power and individual interests, current and future.

The sole-candidate preselections are the most straightforward but have effectively been held as factional bargaining chips in negotiations on the other issues.

Two weeks ago, individuals from the Hawke–Morrison centre-right, the hard right and the moderates reached a clandestine deal to try to bypass the need for plebiscites.

The proposed deal had multiple objectives: to protect three MPs in the house of representatives from preselection challenges; to install preferred candidates in some other seats; to entrench a sitting senator in the No. 1 spot on the ticket; and to get rid of another.

Only the negotiators from Morrison’s centre-right had the imprimatur of their faction.

The deal, which was met with a white-hot backlash from moderates and hard-right members who weren’t consulted, was not put to the state executive when it met on January 28.

Since then, preselections have progressed in the sole-candidate seats. But elsewhere, the debacle has casualties.

The agreed candidate in the seat of Warringah, moderate lawyer Jane Buncle, has pulled out, convinced the preselection squabbles – including Morrison’s unsuccessful earlier bid to persuade Berejiklian to stand – have now made the contest against incumbent independent Zali Steggall unwinnable.

The prime minister’s choice in the central-coast seat of Dobell, Pentecostal preacher Jemima Gleeson, has also stepped away. And there is still brawling over who will run against incumbent crossbench defector Craig Kelly in Hughes.

The deal had sought to install candidates in those and several other seats. It was also intended to protect Hawke, fellow centre-right cabinet minister and Morrison supporter Sussan Ley, who backed the leadership spill in 2018, and backbench moderate factional player from North Sydney, Trent Zimmerman.

If passed, it would have spared them from a branch-member vote.

All three face factionally driven challenges from the hard-right.

When details of the clandestine deal became public last week, many Liberals were enraged. Hard-right members condemned those who had purported to speak for them: negotiators Charles Perrottet, brother of the NSW premier, and Catholic Schools NSW chief Dallas McInerney. Some moderates raged that Zimmerman and Kean should not have agreed to it.

This week, NSW division president and former Howard government minister Philip Ruddock circulated a motion to the state executive, sponsored by Morrison’s office, that resurrected just one part of the deal: the proposal to endorse Hawke, Ley and Zimmerman.

It was rejected. There was talk the rejection could be used to justify a federal executive intervention.

The failed factional deal would have confirmed Foreign Minister Marise Payne in the first of three winnable spots on the senate ticket, also sidestepping a vote. It deliberately did not protect right senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

Under coalition arrangements, the first and third spots go to Liberals and the second to the Nationals.

Of the two Liberal positions, only the first is considered electorally secure, with the third subject to the vagaries of preferences and parties of the right.

Fierravanti-Wells has been an irritant to Morrison since he dumped her from the ministry after winning the prime ministership in 2018.

Outspoken early on China, she then angered many colleagues by giving quotes to journalist Niki Savva for her book, alleging a personal relationship between fellow conservative and former prime minister Tony Abbott and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Throughout the pandemic, she has been a loud critic on government accountability. There has been speculation that retiring senator Jim Molan might be persuaded to run against her.

 

Morrison’s personal determination to be rid of Fierravanti-Wells goes back to his own controversial preselection in 2007.

His association with Alex Hawke extends further back.

Scott Morrison’s time as state Liberal director in the early 2000s overlapped with Hawke’s term as president of the NSW Young Liberals. Hawke went on to become president of the federal Young Liberals.

Hawke is one of those to whom Morrison owes the start of his political career. In 2007, Morrison moved into the electorate of Mitchell, for which rising powerbroker Alex Hawke wanted preselection.

Another seat was found for Morrison. Two months later, Hawke was among those instrumental in helping him secure Cook after the now prime minister failed to win a vote under his own steam.

Morrison initially lost to long-time branch member Michael Towke, who was able to bring his own numbers to the fight and win 82 votes to Morrison’s eight.

Fierravanti-Wells had argued Morrison was not conservative enough and supported Towke instead.

Among the also-rans were Paul Fletcher and David Coleman, both now in Morrison’s ministry.

Towke was subjected to a rugged smear campaign. With the state executive wielding influence, he was not endorsed as the candidate. In a modified process, Morrison secured the nomination.

Morrison did not forget who helped him and who did not. His self-described transactional politics features favours and old scores. He promotes those who back him and punishes those who cross him, keeping a ledger that appears to have no expiry date.

Morrison’s history with these other political figures is part of the backdrop to the war now raging in NSW Liberal ranks.

The text messages between Berejiklian and the unnamed former cabinet minister, leaked to Channel Ten’s Peter van Onselen, may themselves have been a historical payback, or just an attempt to destabilise Morrison when he’s down. Blindsided by their contents, Morrison responded: “I obviously don’t agree with it and I don’t think that’s my record.”

The leaked messages, and van Onselen’s decision to confront Morrison with them publicly, successfully drowned out the prime minister’s message at the National Press Club: that the election isn’t a referendum on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic but about who can be trusted with the economy and national security.

Morrison’s week began badly, even before the Press Club appearance. Panic spread through the Liberals in the wake of Monday’s Newspoll, which showed Labor’s two-party-preferred vote had rocketed up to 56 compared with the Coalition’s 44.

But in a sign Morrison and Hawke were still not retreating on the preselection issue, by midweek the deeply embarrassing text message exchange was being cited as another reason for federal intervention in the NSW division.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the prime minister – who insists the mystery texting minister is from the NSW government – was being “urged” to intervene in the wake of the leak.

The report came the same day Morrison told Ray Hadley the game-playing should stop. “Those playing games in … the organisation need to ensure they focus on winning this election for the goodness of the Australian people,” he said, “and forget their factional rubbish.”

Twenty-four hours later, a longstanding senior Liberal told The Saturday Paper it was time for the prime minister to stop obstructing the plebiscites and allow candidates to be chosen properly and fast.

“I think that is an unwise course for the prime minister to follow,” the Liberal said of federal intervention. “And I hope he will see the sense of that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Inside the Liberal Party’s open warfare".

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

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