Opinion

Stephen Mutch
How Scott Morrison became a tin-pot dictator

I was there at the beginning. The moderate faction of the Liberal Party had its genesis at a meeting at Don Quixote Restaurant in Sydney, some time in the early 1980s. We saw ourselves as a vanguard in the party, a bunch of young turks eager to make our mark, a counterforce to the existing faction of the right we called the “Uglies”.

Even then, we saw the value in labels. For a long time we simply called ourselves “the Group”, but at some point a decision was made to change our label to “Moderates”. It was a conscious attempt to appeal to left-leaning media and to position ourselves as progressives in contrast with the “troglodytes” of the right.

At the time I had read a novel by Gore Vidal that referenced “moderates” in American politics, so perhaps it was me who borrowed the term first. Others might claim the responsibility. The point is that the usage was deliberately adopted – it was discussed at a meeting – and has been very successful over the years in prejudicing superficial media analysis against the “right” of the party and in favour of the “left”. Media to this day have been led astray by relying on the information of their progressive contacts in the party to the detriment of objective journalism.

From the outset the Group was more pragmatic than philosophical. We did not have a unifying ideology around which to gather. It was nice to be seen as small-l liberals rather than stodgy conservatives. In fact, the conservative wing was right to label us as trendies. Few in the Group had any inkling of the economic debates around neoliberalism versus protectionism. Many were perpetual Young Liberals with a strong bent towards “partying” politics. Later, some more definition developed in the distinctions between the left and the right, but these mainly revolved around social issues. Liberalism is an ideological position that accommodates divergent streams of thought, stressing individual freedom in both economic and social issues, but the so-called broad church is accommodating of alternative viewpoints and so are the factions. What really matters is getting the numbers.

The progress of the Moderates over the years has been meteoric. This needs to be understood if a person is to have any inkling at all of the murky world of factions, and now subfactions, in the Liberal Party. I was an active participant in the party for about 40 years, from the time I left school in 1973 and joined the Young Liberals. I later served as a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and then federal member for Cook.

Over decades I witnessed the Moderates metamorphose from an amateurish, nascent faction into a pragmatic machine that has pretty much controlled the NSW division and federal Liberal politics to this day, despite ideologically representing perhaps only a third of party membership. I saw how the faction changed from a relatively informal group of friends with a fair degree of collective decision-making into a more formalised operation run by politicians, staffers and some party activists.

The faction eventually became more autocratic, subject to the personalised agendas of a handful at the top willing to do the work. Later, it morphed into a professionalised, essentially privatised operation, run by a small coterie of business lobbyists. There might be subsequent developments in the mechanics of the faction’s operations of which I am unaware. With that caveat, it is the persisting level of lobbyist control or undue influence that is of the greatest concern to me in its implications for democratic governance in Australia.

Undue influence and even hands-on control of political factions by lobbyists, either directly, through the participation of the principals of business lobbying firms in preselections, or indirectly, by closely controlled proxies and lieutenants, is corrosive to democracy and leads inevitably to oligarchic control of the party.

I have been intimately involved in many Liberal Party preselections, both as a candidate and as a delegate. I have witnessed firsthand changes to the way these events, vital to our democratic culture, have been managed and manipulated. Unfortunately, welcome moves to introduce greater democracy in the form of plebiscites have developed in tandem with the growing sophistication of lobbyist influence in the party – a reach that extends into the party machines themselves. There are multiple ways to subvert the democratic process and all of these are employed with great effect. Indeed, the very idea of self-government when it comes to political party selection processes is a travesty, yet this quaint idea has long been supported by the courts.

After I was removed from my seat in Cook in 1998 in a factional power play, I lingered in the party for years in the hope that it could be reformed. After my final fling at preselection in Cronulla in 2010, where I was inevitably thwarted by the direct involvement of two faction-controlling lobbyists, I came to the sad conclusion that the party in NSW is irredeemable. I am one of those outspoken proponents of democratic processes who have been effectively blackballed by the oligarchs who manipulate the party – one of a select few who will always be excluded, by hook or by crook. Perversely, I take some pride in that.

This is perhaps largely “politics 101”, but oligarchic control is no joke, and greater understanding is required to sustain and promote a culture of democracy throughout politics in Australia. Many politicians and former politicians give lip-service to supporting democratic preselections and play down the role of factions. They are being disingenuous. They talk the talk but have never walked the walk in defence of democracy. In fact, most have an elite distaste for candidates popularly supported by party members, who they cannot easily control.

Much of this would be perplexing to party members and supporters. Like frogs in a slow-heating pot, they are generally unaware of the manner in which their once great party has gradually been manipulated, degraded and corrupted. I only realised belatedly that professional lobbyists in control of factional numbers could quite easily install carpet-bagging candidates in parliamentary seats through sheer numbers or factional deals. This sometimes occurs over the protestations of local factional members – some with their own expectations of preselection – with consequent knock-on effects and further deals by factional warlords to placate them.

Unfortunately, the degradation of the party has been aided and abetted by pragmatic individuals who facilitate lobbyist influence by accepting the rewards of their acquiescence, typically parliamentary seats, but also government appointments, grants, contracts and other rewards. Some even treasure the bestowal of party honours.

All this brings us to the latest episode in the tawdry history of the NSW Liberal Party. The NSW Court of Appeal has dismissed an attempt to enforce some standard of accountability and democratic process in the NSW division. The court relied on the anachronistic notion that political parties are private associations and that these are best left to govern themselves. This attitude might be suitable for a multiparty system where people have some choice – but in a rigid two-party state the choice is limited and diabolical.

Consequent to this decision, a triumvirate of longstanding party operatives, apparently representative of the left, the right and the soft-right, has been legally empowered to bypass democratic preselections, anoint a few favoured sitting members, and appoint candidates in a plethora of outstanding seats. Two of these people happen to be the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the premier of NSW, Dominic Perrottet. Their intervention is in flagrant breach of a longstanding ethical principle that parliamentary leaders should stand apart from participation in party preselections. The consequence of this is that the court has enabled the establishment of a tin-pot dictatorship to run the Liberal Party. In a chilling aftermath, the state executive member who instigated the court action has been expelled from the party.

Fledgling candidates appointed by the troika are not the products of a selection process of local members. Whatever their touted qualifications and connections, some are in essence party neophytes who will be beholden to their patrons, and in particular the prime minister, who is their parliamentary leader. With local Liberal Party members excluded from the process, these candidates might well have to rely on their own resources and considerable head office help just to run basic campaigns.

Morrison also is the saviour of those sitting members who might not have survived preselection challenges. So in what is effectively an internal party coup, breathtaking in its scope and audacity, the prime minister now largely owns the Liberal Party in NSW. It is particularly poignant that to the best of my knowledge Morrison himself failed to win a single local vote in his preselection for Cook against Michael Towke, a lack of legitimacy that is haunting him to this day. This is the legacy he bestows on the anointed recipients of his poisoned chalice.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "How Scott Morrison became a tin-pot dictator".

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Stephen Mutch is a retired lawyer and academic. He is a former Liberal member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and a former member for the federal seat of Cook.

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