In the 75-year history of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, there has never been more factional upheaval than the past two weeks. It’s barely been reported but hugely significant considering how all bar one federal parliamentary Liberal leader since the 1990 election — including the four prime ministers – have been creatures of the NSW Division.
Factional conflict is opaque but to cut to the chase, it all boils down to who (and how) the party selects as its candidates for state and federal elections. So bear with me as we take a dive down the factional rabbit hole.
The NSW Division has around 10,000 members. They are divided into a three-tier hierarchy.
There are around 9,200 members who make up the rank and file and who have been nearly powerless (more on that later).
Ranking above these poor plebs are the 800 or so delegates to state council, which convenes every few months. State council delegates are parliamentarians, a representative or two from each of the 350 or so local branches plus a few others.
There’s hand to hand combat over who’s chosen as a state council delegate because only they get to vote every two years or so for the all-supreme 28-member state executive (AKA the politburo). In Lazarus Rising, John Howard wrote: “My first experience in serious organisational politics was my election in 1962 to the state executive of the NSW Division. This body was the power centre of the party in NSW.”
Factions fight to control state executive because if you want to be a parliamentary candidate and you have the blessing of the dominant faction on state xxecutive, you’re likely to win.
Traditionally there were two factions vying for control of the state executive. For simplicity’s sake let’s badge them the left and the right. Since the 1970’s the left has usually dominated but in 2002 the right’s Alex Hawke was elected NSW Young Liberal president and two years later the right won control of state executive … and accordingly won preselection after preselection.
In 2007 Hawke was elected to the federal seat of Mitchell. Soon after he defected from the right and did something novel – he started a third faction badged the centre-right. You’d assume a “centre-right” faction would ally with the right but they swung their 15 per cent of state council behind the left … who promptly (and very happily) regained control of the state executive and rewarded Hawke accordingly.
In around 2014 the left’s long-time supremo (and lobbyist par excellence) Michael Photios formally resigned control of the left faction and was replaced by a dual leadership team — Trent Zimmerman, the federal member for North Sydney) and Matt Kean (state MP for Hornsby). It was an error to split the leadership. These things need one boss, not two.
When the state executive elections were held in early 2018 the left ditched the centre-right and formed an alliance with their historic foe – the right. That was a shock — but not of the magnitude of the past two weeks.
The results of those 2018 state executive elections delivered the centre-right a measly four out of 28 positions. The centre-right was in terminal decline but then, seemingly out of the blue, the faction’s only notable performer, Scott Morrison, became Prime Minister.
Last week the results of this year’s State Executive elections exposed a likely permanent rupture in the left. Zimmerman argued the left should ditch the right and realign with the centre-right. Kean disagreed with his co-ruler and said the left should maintain cosy relations with the right.
Despite Zimmerman taking many of the biggest names of the left with him (including Photios himself), the younger and more affable Kean triumphed. Two-thirds of the left’s State Council delegates voted with Kean and the joint ticket with the right. The left has been notorious for enforcing intense discipline, so this big ugly open split was a bombshell.
Who in the left defected to the centre-right? Lobbyists who monetise political access were more than conspicuous (obviously wanting to cosy up to the PM) plus the more left-wing lefties. For convenience, we’ll badge the defectors the hard-left which makes Kean’s faction the centre-left.
So we now have four factions divided into two odd alliances. The hard-left/centre-right alliance has 40 per cent control of the state executive while the soft-left/right alliance has 60 per cent – clear dominance.
But with the chessboard scattered, all the factional hotshots have missed the elephant in the room: the state executive has lost its power over parliamentary candidate selection. After a six-year factional streetfight — and a dramatic lay membership uprising — the party rules have been democratised.
Dodgy archaic preselections (where very few locals had any say in candidate selection) have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Going forward, candidates will be chosen by plebiscite — which means all local members will be given a vote to elect party candidates for the seat in which they live.
The state executive will still have some say, but power has largely devolved to the lay membership – hallelujah!
To win endorsement for a state or federal seat you don’t need to be preoccupied with cosying up to the dominant faction on state executive anymore. Instead, you will need to impress members of the community you want to represent – the far less factional, merit rewarding, ordinary rank and file of the party.
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