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Who does Dr Phelps really represent?

The right-wing extremists are not just in the NSW Liberal Party, they have made it to the centre.

It has been known for some time that the group aligned with shady Opus Dei-connected NSW Upper House power-broker, David Clarke, has infiltrated the federal ranks, and the revelations yesterday of Federal minister Gary Nairn’s chief of staff, Peter Phelps, heckling a Labor candidate at a public meeting, brought it out further into the open.

Dr Phelps, as was revealed in question time yesterday, compared Colonel Mike Kelly, a former Australian soldier, with the guards at the Nazi Belsen death camp, over his service in Iraq. Colonel Kelly just happens to be standing against Mr Nairn in Eden-Monaro.

Dr Phelps has a long association with the far right, and the Clarke acolyte, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, paid him tribute in her first speech after being elected in 2005. He has also worked for the chilling Senator Eric Abetz, whom no one would ever call a moderate.

He was instrumental in the undermining of the talented Liberal MLC, John Ryan, leading not only to Ryan’s defeat, but his subsequent suspension from the Liberal Party for daring to go public. Ryan is just the sort of people the Liberals need, and especially so in NSW.

Ryan’s political assassination is an unpublicised case study of all that is wrong with the NSW Liberal Party and why its current extremist domination will drive it into well-deserved oblivion.

One of the very few NSW Liberals to emerge from the western suburbs of Sydney, Ryan, a former high school teacher, took a great interest in social justice issues and was highly regarded for his advocacy on behalf of people with disability, child protection and for reforms to the regulation of boarding houses. As a backbencher he also conducted a long running campaign to enhance protection for consumers in the resident home building industry against unscrupulous builders.

Although a committed evangelical Christian towards the end of his career he was frequently at odds with representatives of the so called “religious right” for supporting socially progressive initiatives such as a bill to codify how parents might smack children, a bill to trial medically supervised injecting rooms for heroin addicts and a Bill to lower the age the age of consent for homosexual sex.

It was this latter issue, apparently, that drew the ire of Clarke, and especially Phelps. In 2003, I attended a Liberal Party gathering to talk about Bob Menzies on the 25th anniversary of his death, but Dr Phelps was not interested. His main concern was getting through a motion condemning attempts in NSW to lower the age of homosexual consent.

On 18 November 2006, despite strong endorsement from the then NSW Liberal Leader Peter Debnam, John Ryan was defeated in a preselection ballot for the Liberal Party Legislative Council ticket by a “right wing” candidate Marie Ficarra – backed and supported by Dr Phelps.

Is this the sort of support Gary Nairn is courting in his bid to hold one of the most marginal government seats?

The far right which now controls the NSW Liberals is akin to the left which ran the Victorian ALP after the 1955 split: forget electoral success; fight for purity.

One must ask whether Dr Phelps is any sort of asset at all, and just who it is he really represents.

Dr Norman Abjorensen’s book, Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy, will be published in October by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Irfan Yusuf also has memories of Dr Phelps:

I’ve known Peter Phelps since 1995. He was a member of the Left who then defected to the Right. He is a very smart chap with a PhD in history from Sydney Uni.

Phelps first burst onto the conservative scene as editor of a Right Wing Young Liberal newsletter called “The Atlas” which lasted some 5 or 6 editions.

In 1996, Phelps went to work for Federal Member for Lowe Paul Zammitt. At first Zammitt stopped Phelps from doing factional work, hoping that behaving in a factionally neutral manner would gain Zammitt a ministry.

Zammitt forced Phelps to stop producing his “The Atlas” newsletter after Phelps ran a front page editorial calling for Medicare to be abolished.

Zammitt’s factional neutrality didn’t gain him a ministry. Phelps suggested to Zammitt that he become an internal Right Wing warrior of Sydney’s inner-west. Zammitt took on this advice but his paranoia led him to upset more conservatives than lefties.

Zammitt eventually saw the writing on the wall and decided to ditch the Liberal Party altogether and become an independent. Poor Phelps was left high and dry. However, he was looked after and has now risen up the ranks to become chief of staff to two Special Ministers of State.

The Coalition has little reason to complain about Phelps, who has always been known to speak his mind, even if potentially embarrassing his politician bosses. Phelps’ latest foray against Mike Kelly is quite characteristic of his brash style, something he has maintained since his Young Liberal days.

Phelps is merely behaving consistently with the culture of the NSW Liberal Party. Here, politics is treated like a game of cricket, and Phelps is someone who prefers to bowl bouncers. Sadly, on this occasion, all he has achieved is adding runs to his opponent’s run tally.

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