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Politics

Aug 28, 2014

Poll Bludger: NSW Libs can't stop the rot as ICAC claims another soul

The NSW Liberals are hemorrhaging MPs in the wake of ICAC investigations. The latest victim is Londonderry MP Bart Bassett, whose recent history shows branch-stacking and factional squabbles aren't just for Labor.

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The New South Wales Liberal Party’s unfolding crisis shows no sign of abating, with the Independent Commission Against Corruption’s inquiry into property developer donations yesterday claiming its tenth victim. Bart Bassett joins an ever-lengthening list of state MPs who have either stood aside from the party or resigned from parliament altogether, along with federal ministerial casualty Arthur Sinodinos.

The allegations facing Bassett should sound familiar enough by now, involving as they do attempts to circumvent the ban on donations from property developers brought in by the Labor government in 2009. Once (and future?) coal mining magnate Nathan Tinkler is again at the centre of proceedings, as is the role of a Liberal Party associated entity, the Free Enterprise Foundation, in facilitating the flow of property developer money to election candidates.

There is, however, one important distinction in Bassett’s case. The previous ICAC casualties from lower house seats all hailed from the Central Coast and Hunter region, a fact potently illustrated by a graphic doing the rounds on social media a few weeks ago.

Bassett, on the other hand, represents the electorate of Londonderry, located in the fabled electoral crucible of western Sydney. His involvement complicates Liberal efforts to establish containment lines around the issue, most notably its act of penance in forfeiting the pending by-elections to replace its disgraced members for Newcastle and Charlestown.

If the experience of the O’Farrell-Baird government has taught us nothing else, it’s that the diseases that infect the New South Wales body politic are not so easily quarantined.

It has certainly been demonstrated that corruption scandals are by no means confined to one side of politics, as Tony Abbott’s social media unit smugly imagined when they fired off a tweet last year that has since come back to haunt them. Nor are factionalism and branch-stacking any less central to the Liberal Party’s inner workings, as a closer look at Bart Bassett’s recent history makes clear.

Bassett is a factional moderate and an ally of Michael Photios, whose work as a lobbyist for Nick Di Girolamo’s Australian Water Holdings engaged ICAC’s interest in April. Like a number of other state Liberal MPs, Bassett found his way into parliament at the 2011 election by securing a seat the party had never won before — and which, he no doubt feared, it might never win again.

The activities of the Diaz camp … have rated high among the inspirations behind a reform push in the New South Wales Liberal Party.

Starting from this already unpromising base for a long-term career in politics, Bassett’s position was further weakened by new electoral boundaries, in which Londonderry traded Richmond and its semi-rural surrounds for a chunk of deep red territory in outer suburban St Marys. Bassett then entered a game of musical chairs with the members for two nearby safe Liberal seats, Ray Williams in Hawkesbury and Dominic Perrottet in Castle Hill, which ended with Williams and Perrottet swapping seats and Bassett left empty-handed.

At this point it might have been thought that Bassett would choose, however reluctantly, to dig and defend the turf he has spent over three years working as local member. However, it appeared that a new opportunity knocked to the east of Londonderry in the seat of Riverstone, held by another first-termer in Kevin Conolly — not quite as attractive a prospect for a Liberal as blue-ribbon Hawkesbury, but with a post-redistribution margin of 20%, surely good for at least another few terms.

The principal actor in this chapter of the drama was local party potentate Jess Diaz, best known to the nation at large as the underwriter of two disastrous bids for the federal seat of Greenway by his son Jaymes. Both father and son had reportedly turned their activities as migration agents to their advantage in building networks of support within the local party — a less charitable interpretation of which would involve terms commonly associated with the ALP, such as “ethnic branch-stacking”.

The formidable local presence of the Diaz axis had hitherto been in Conolly’s corner, both having been linked to the “Religious Right” faction of upper house MP David Clarke. However, this came unstuck after Jess Diaz failed in his bid for the Blacktown mayoralty and, it appeared, decided he wished to stake a claim on Riverstone instead.

For reasons unclear, Diaz shortly withdrew his nomination, but his numbers were nonetheless brought to bear in disendorsing Conolly and starting the preselection process afresh. Into the fray stepped Bassett, who was set to topple Conolly with Diaz family support at a preselection ballot scheduled for August 19. However, the process was put on hold pending Bassett’s scheduled appearance before ICAC.

The latest developments are surely good news for Conolly, but Bassett was not the only nominee for the preselection re-run, and there is no reason to think Diaz will be of a mind to stand aloof. Conolly has reportedly been assured by Premier Mike Baird that the matter will be resolved in his favour, but has nonetheless felt it worth his while to keep open the possibility of legal action against the decision to reopen the preselection.

The activities of the Diaz camp — and in particular the successive debacles in Greenway, the first of which arguably cost the Coalition the 2010 federal election — have rated high among the inspirations behind a reform push in the New South Wales Liberal Party.

A reform committee headed by John Howard was instituted after the federal election, and it has recommended that direct plebiscites of party members replace the existing system in which branches nominate delegates to vote in preselections, which has been criticised as encouraging branch-stacking.

Which brings us to yet another aspect of the tale that will sound all too familiar to students of the Labor Party. Notwithstanding the Howard imprimatur, the reform proposal is by all accounts doomed to defeat when it eventually comes before the state council, owing to the opposition of the party’s two dominant factions.

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.

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