If the Tassie Libs have any sense they will not disendorse outspoken candidate Greg Barns, but Hillary Bray is not confident when people like Erica Abetz are involved.

The Tassie Libs have summonsed their high profile candidate for Dennison and Australian Republican Movement boss, Greg Barns, to appear before a special party committee next weekend for disciplining over his remarks against government refugee policy. They claim Barns has violated a section of their constitution prohibiting anyone other than MPs commenting on policy.

Barns’ preselection was fiercely but unsuccessfully opposed by Erica Betz and the dominant right faction. The same group have called for the meeting, which will have the power to strip him of his candidacy, and this time they will control the numbers. It’s scarcely subtle.

Subtlety isn’t Barns’ forte either, but the Tasmanian right are trashing the traditions of the Liberal Party. For more than a century, ever since the fledgling colonial Labor parties announced that their members would be bound by pledges and party platforms, the Liberal Party and its predecessors have boasted of the freedom of conscience they enjoy.

This seems to mean nothing to Erica and the Tassie Torquemadas, but fortunately Barns has his supporters. Tasmania’s last Liberal premier, Tony Rundle, has backed Barn’s right to exercise the freedom of speech that the party has previously taken for granted, and the recently deposed state Liberal leader Sue Napier came out in support of Barns on Wednesday.

Napier’s comments were noteworthy: “I think Greg Barns has the talent needed for Tasmania. . .I don’t agree with his views on asylum seekers, but no one should be surprised that he has reiterated his views. . . I’m alarmed in that I see Greg Barns being singled out for specific treatment. Others have done far worse and weren’t treated this way.”

She isn’t wrong. As Barns pointed out, the party’s low profile leader, Bob Cheek, made an art form of dissidence without being sanctioned before getting into the top job, and at least two endorsed candidates have also gone against party policy over the future form of Bass Strait ferry travel without punishment. Indeed, it would be fair to say that disagreeing with party policy is a good Tasmanian tradition.

Back in 1983, when the Queensland Liberal and National Parties ran separate campaigns for a state election, Premier Robin Gray, the only Liberal in power anywhere in Australia, went to campaign for Joh’s team. When he returned, he kept his job despite another clause in the party constitution that states that any member who campaigned against endorsed Liberal candidates is automatically expelled. Gray then went on to give the Hawke government a whole range of free kicks during John Howard’s first period as opposition leader by publicly opposing his policies on privatisation and labour market reform.

Tasmanian MHRs like Bruce Goodluck and Michael Hodgeman made life interesting for Malcolm Fraser, and at the time of the 1977 referendum all the Tasmanian Liberal Senators campaigned against the government’s questions.

Indeed, a former Tasmanian Liberal state director, Don Wing, told the Hobart Mercury last week that the party’s most successful period had coincided with its most outspoken MPs: “If the perceived attitude of some now in the Liberal Party hierarchy had existed in the 1970s and 1980s, several valued federal Liberal parliamentary members at the time would have been in peril of disendorsement.”

Wing sits in the Tasmanian Legislative Council but as an independent. It puts him in a fascinating potion to be able to comment on the state Liberals:

“The manner in which the Liberal Party treats Mr Barns is a matter of concern not only to the party but also to the community at large. . . At the meeting on February 2, it will be the Liberal party on trial more than him. . . The apparent over-reaction of some members of the Liberal Party organisation to Mr Greg Barns’s letter (criticising Senator Abetz) is surprising. The party has traditionally asserted that its members have the right to speak and vote as they see fit on matters of conscience. Any decision to disendorse would amount to an onslaught on democracy.”

The Tassie Liberals seem to have a different view on what counts as democracy. The same newspaper report went on to say “Liberal party president Doug Chipman said he had cautioned two Liberal politicians after they spoke publicly on the Barns debate” presumably Napier and Rundle. It would actually do the party more good if they listened to what these two had to say.

Napier’s description of Barns as “a real contender” is particularly noteworthy. Barns, no matter what one thinks of his views, has an impressive CV. He has been either chief of staff or a senior adviser to former federal finance minister John Fahey, former Tasmanian premier Ray Groom and former NSW premier Nick Greiner and, as chief executive of the Australian Gold Council, has transformed a fledgling peak body into a respected voice of business. He even worked for former Victorian opposition leader Alan Brown, but was sacked the day Jeff Kennett reassumed the leadership, along with now Rio Tinto heavyweight Tim Duncan.

Very, very few people with a record like that leave Sydney for Hobart while a torrent of talent flows the other way. Are the Tasmanian Libs so stupid that they are prepared to reject an offering like Greg Barns?

Quite possibly, alas. Erica and his allies have done quite a remarkable job of destroying the once strong Tasmanian Liberal Party. Since they left their political adolescence and took over the show, the local Libs have gone from holding all the Apple Isle’s House of Representatives seats to a grand total of zilch.

Indeed, their efforts to gag Barns are a further demonstration of their political skills. It’s a brilliant idea to split a party by crudely purging someone for the crime of happening to disagree with you just before a state election. Premier Jim Bacon must be looking on with glee.

Of course, Erica and his little band of book-burners won’t think of it that way. It’s a fair bet that no matter what happens over the preselection when the Liberal Party loses this year’s state election as it seems set to do they’ll already know exactly who’s to blame.

Greg Barns.

It looks as if his battles are only beginning.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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