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Factions a test for Turnbull

22 January 2018 163 views No Comment

It’s an iron law of politics that disunity is death. If you can’t keep your own team together, you never win elections. The NSW Liberal Party is about to make decisions that should seal its fate at the next state and the next federal election.

On February 10, the Liberal Party’s state council will decide whether its rank-and-file members count or whether it will remain, in John Howard’s words, a “closed shop” where factional insiders make the key decisions. If the party doesn’t change, its members will continue to desert, donors will continue their boycott and two key Liberal governments in Australia will be in jeopardy. It’s that serious, but it’s not clear that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull or Premier Gladys Berejiklian yet realise either their peril or their opportunity.

It’s a common misconception that only the Labor Party has factions. The Liberals’ factions aren’t quite as well organised; they don’t have the range of jobs to deliver; and they don’t have the same reach into the federal parliamentary party, but they’re real and they can readily pressure people to put survival before principle and conformity before judgment. “Vote for this person and you’ll be considered for a job on that MP’s staff”; “Vote this way and you’ll have support for that preselection”. That’s how the blandishments go: in order to get ahead, you’re to toe the line.

Around the country, the Liberal Party’s 30,000 or so members are overwhelmingly right of centre. Most are economically liberal and socially conservative. They support lower taxes and smaller government. Moreover many are reluctant to change fundamental values and institutions such as the monarchy or traditional marriage.

But, as Howard put it, the Liberal Party is also a “broad church”. While most of its members are conservative, there’s also a small “l” liberal element that is socially progressive and economically interventionist but which remains in the party largely because of a distaste for the Labor Party’s union links.

A big challenge for Liberal Party leaders is to manage and reconcile these different elements. The problem is when one side has a “winner takes all approach”. This is why Christopher Pyne’s late-night boast after last year’s Liberal federal council was so dangerous. It reinforced the suspicion of many conservative Liberals that their efforts were sustaining a Labor-lite government.

It’s a particular issue in NSW where the party’s structures make it much easier for factional insiders to manipulate preselections and where a series of personality-based alliances have put the progressive faction in charge. When he stepped down, the faction’s long-term leader, former state government minister Michael Photios, claimed in February last year that progressives had delivered both the premiership and the prime ministership. Indeed, contacting Photios is reported to have been Berejiklian’s first move when she was considering her run for the premiership.

For years, senior people from across the Liberal Party spectrum have been concerned about the way the party’s structures have excluded rank-and-file members from any real say in decision-making. When he was NSW opposition leader in the 1980s, Nick Greiner (now the Liberal Party’s federal president) called for rank-and-file ballots in preselections. When he was the party’s federal treasurer 15 years ago, Turnbull called for greater internal democracy. Yet NSW and Western Australia remain the only states where party members don’t directly elect at least lower house candidates.

The push for reform in NSW really got going just after Tony Abbott became prime minister and when he said that you could be a powerbroker or a lobbyist but not both. This led to Photios, who ran a well-connected lobbying firm, formally resigning from the NSW Liberal Party executive, even though he kept pulling its strings. Abbott and the then premier Barry O’Farrell personally fronted the state executive in late 2013 to demand reform and a committee under Howard made recommendations for change only to have them pigeonholed at state council two years later.

After the 2016 federal election shambles — with six seats lost in NSW alone — the issue came to a head again. Reform pressure led to a Liberal Party convention at Rosehill last year, which voted almost two-to-one for rank-and-file ballots to pick all candidates for parliament, to elect the state executive and to ban political staffers and lobbyists from holding office inside the party.

The issue now is whether the party’s state council will accept the outcome of the process that it established or will opt for cosmetic changes that will leave in charge the string-pullers and manipulators who know that 50 hand-picked delegates are much easier to control than hundreds of rank-and-file members.

The test for Turnbull and Berejiklian is juggling democratic principle with the interests of the factional bosses. But if Turnbull wants to start this year much better than last, his should be an easy choice to make. ​

As usual, personal rivalries are a complicating factor. The reformers are divided into those who think some reform is better than none and are prepared to accept positions on state executive as part of a compromise deal and those who think it would be unconscionable for the party to back the minority of members against the majority. If the issue isn’t resolved, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives can expect a further influx of disillusioned former Liberals and our country’s politics will get even more fractured and ego-driven. But make no mistake, if the real reformers don’t prevail, this brawl in NSW is likely to destroy two Liberal governments.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Australian January 22, 2018, p 10.

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