There is no family Christmas, no school reunion more dysfunctional than the Liberal Party’s annual Federal Council.
Every June, MPs, their staffers and the party faithful gather for a fun-filled weekend of reciting press releases to each other.
Armed with a lanyard and their free Liberal Party pen, delegates debate obscure policy motions, vote in pre-determined ballots and marvel at Richard Alston’s sprightliness.
Ministers doing their yearly penance stroll outside the conference, avoiding overzealous delegates, offering the occasional doorstop and pretending to use their phone.
The Federal Executive, a meaningless body comprised of former MPs and future wannabees, are perched at the front of the meeting, nodding on cue and mumbling half-hearted ‘hear,-hears’.
Federal Council is a soulless exercise in party engagement and tick-the-box bureaucracy. It’s a risk-adverse, bland meeting which ultimately bores its members into submission.
So for years, the real drawcard of the weekend has been the Black Hand dinner.
Outstripping its conservative counterpart in attendance, the Black Hand is traditionally an invite-only, banquet-style meeting of the party’s moderates.
Eager staffers clamber to get their name on the list. MPs call in favours to get their foot in the door. Party members fly on their own dime to attend.
The meticulously managed guest list comprises rising stars of the backbench, promising Young Liberals and doddering Methuselahs who remember when moderates once took pride in being dismissed as wets.
Powerbrokers from each state horse-trade on who makes the speeches and who picks up the tab.
The wine flows freely, the crowd is rowdy and the restaurant’s capacity is always stretched. Under Chatham House Rules, senior members of the moderate faction incite the meeting into activism.
They talk a big game of their struggle in the Howard and Abbott years, the importance of a broad church and continuing to fighting the good fight in speeches that mix the facetious and vainglorious.
While it may not toe the party line, it’s an event that exemplifies why one would join a political party – to have a vision, a difference of opinion and pursue it.
After all, party membership is not just about the free lapel pins and cringeworthy anti-Shorten ads.
In a world plagued by focus groups and awkwardly staged appearances, the craving for authenticity and true believers is real.
This year’s Black Hand represented a catastrophic change of direction. Organiser of recent years Simon Birmingham was otherwise occupied with Senate crossbench shenanigans, passing the mantle to his NSW colleague Trent Zimmerman. The guest list was erratic and haphazardly compiled. Family dinner was reduced to bring-a-friend drinks.
The result was first-time leak and a barrage of backlash for Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne who declared his already-public position on marriage equality.
Since Pyne became South Australian Young Liberal president in 1988 – even before – the right have been baying for his blood. As he found his way on to the federal executive in 1990, the House of Representatives in 1993, the ministry in 2007 and his current exalted role first as leader of the opposition in the House and then Leader of the House – complete with a place on the leadership group and a seat at the Cabinet table – his enemies have only become emboldened.
Last Friday, through a mixture of chronic incompetence, laziness and malice, they were gifted with an opportunity to significantly damage the polarising powerbroker. Unsurprisingly, they seized it.
However, while his comments angered those who already loathe him; Pyne’s meek moment of penitence on Wednesday night has disheartened those who follow him into battle.
The very principles he espoused a week ago have been reneged on. It is a concession that could ultimately do the more damage than a Paul Murray commentary.
The ruling moderates are at a crossroads.
They must decide whether they fall into the politics of right-wing appeasement and a steady-as-she-go, compromised parliamentary agenda.
Or whether they will heed the words of Black Hands past and fight for the party they believe in.
They can no longer do both. War has been declared. The shot has been fired.
As Christopher Pyne has learned, admission to the winner’s circle has a price.
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