Long terms in opposition breed bitter factional rivalries, as the NSW Liberals are demonstrating. By Norman Abjorensen.

Norman Abjorensen
Factional divisions bred in opposition

There’s nothing quite like power to bring a semblance of unity to a political party. The business of actually running a government rather than merely talking about it consumes much political energy and, in any case, the ultimate prize has been attained and needs to be protected.

But being out of power unleashes forces that are usually constrained by the exigencies of government, and while a great deal of political energy is directed towards winning government, some of that energy finds an outlet in internecine warfare, and in that peculiar form of intra-party struggle, the faction comes into its own.

Given the umbrella nature of most political parties, the rise and influence of factions is seemingly inevitable, and this is by no means a bad thing if it leads to robust debate, but factions can also be, and often are, vehicles for mischief. And the longer a party is out of power, the more influence factions can have.

Factions are most often associated with the Labor Party, once significantly more ideological than they are now, but other parties have factions also, though they receive less attention.

At the federal level, the broad left-right factional division operated for years, much of it stemming from the unions and being felt more in preselections than in policy positions. The election of the Hawke government in 1983 saw the rise of a new breed of ALP politician who looked with distaste at the crudities of factional skirmishes and sought to create a more vibrant middle ground – the centre left – that proved to be influential way beyond its numbers in promoting policy positions and members of genuine talent, such as John Dawkins. The factions throughout the Hawke-Keating years operated more as a creative plus for Labor, but after defeat in 1996, the plus quickly became a negative, with factional fragmentation proving a thorn in the side to Kim Beazley, Simon Crean and, most notably, Mark Latham.

Interestingly, for the past 70 years, Labor has enjoyed office for just 27 years, and for all of the 1950s and most of the 1960s, factional warfare raged unchecked, fuelled both by the frustrations and impotence of opposition and the knowledge that imminent victory was unlikely.

But on the other side of the political fence, the Liberal Party in New South Wales has fared even more bleakly than federal Labor, having held office for just 21 years in the 70 years since the party was founded. During that desolate time in the political wilderness in what has usually been regarded as a Labor state, factions have evolved and become immensely powerful. A prerequisite to winning government for each Liberal leader in NSW has been to tame, or at least neutralise, the factions, as Bob Askin did in 1965, Nick Greiner in 1988 and Barry O’Farrell in 2011. 

Prior to each of these leaders taking over, a long succession of leaders had come and gone, mostly falling victim to factional conspiracy as the party wallowed in defeat. Askin, the ultimate pragmatist and a greatly underestimated political strategist, made it clear to the party that it had to win over Labor voters if it was genuine about getting into government, and he described himself as “10 per cent to the right of centre”.

Askin won over his followers by giving them a sniff of victory, and the party for the first time started to be seen as a unified force. Its win in 1965 ended 24 unbroken years of Labor rule. Greiner, also, brought about a sense of unity and purpose as the nearly 12 years of Wran-Unsworth rule began to unravel. For O’Farrell, however, it was only a matter of time, as Labor spectacularly imploded. But even he had paved the ground by building bridges with the factions and dampening what had been for many years an unsavoury saga played out in the media, which even involved the effective public political assassination of one leader, John Brogden, by his factional rivals. 

But the factions are still there, nurtured through long years in opposition. Their main influence, and an important one, is in candidate preselections. Although factional disharmony had been kept under wraps since O’Farrell’s win in 2011, it became clear with his own demise last month, after an embarrassing memory loss about an expensive gift in evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, that they remain very powerful players behind the scenes.

The right swiftly mobilised its disparate factions to block O’Farrell’s preferred successor, Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, perhaps the government’s ablest performer, forcing a quick decision to starve her of the Easter break in which to garner her numbers. The moderates, or the so-called left faction, saw her as their natural leader, but her two decades as a factional warrior for the moderates was anathema to the right. Mike Baird, however, while linked to the moderates, had kept well clear of the barricades, and his pro-Christian beliefs and economic conservatism won him support from the right.

The moderates are broadly, though not entirely, homogenous (in the sense of disliking the right), while the right is divided on a number of issues and with marked tensions between social conservatives, committed Christians and social libertarians. Across these divisions, the forces of the right are further split into three distinct subgroups which, for want of a better label, comprise a soft right, centre right and hard right, the last dubbed “the Taliban” by the moderates and largely taking over from what were once known as “the Uglies”. The right’s activities in branch recruitment and preselection contests are seen as more organised and focused than the moderates’, which gives the right a disproportionate say in party matters.

Baird incurred some political debts in his unexpected rise. Reshaping his ministry, he brought in Jai Rowell, generally identified with the “soft right”, and Dominic Perrottet, factionally aligned with the hard right. An interesting move was the dumping of Greg Smith, a former attorney-general, who was seen as part of the hard religious right, but who had stood firm against the right’s push for mandatory sentencing in criminal matters, arguing that in his former career as a Crown prosecutor he had seen no evidence that it would work. Baird’s position on mandatory sentencing will indicate the extent to which he is now beholden to the right.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 3, 2014 as "Calculating factions". Subscribe here.

Norman Abjorensen
is a visiting fellow in the policy and governance program at ANU, and the author of three books on the Liberal Party.