Greg Barns’s candidacy for the
Tasmanian state Liberals in 2002 was always going to be touchy, but
there was a lot riding on it. Everyone knew Barns was volatile. But he
was also media savvy, a media tart and a media darling with a national
profile after the republic campaign.
The plan went something
like this: get Barns in to the Tasmanian parliament, make him leader
quick smart and establish a counterpoint to the “Liberal” philosophy
coming out of Canberra.
Of course, it all ended up in tears when Barns’ campaign for refugees lead to his disendorsement.
conservative Tasmanian powerbroker Eric Abetz was the bloke who did the
deed – but was he just a hired assassin? That’s where former state
Liberal leader Bob Cheek’s newly-released memoirs are interesting.
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says Barns did himself no favours with his comments: “In Parliament,
Premier Bacon couldn’t contain his delight that Barns, supposedly the
Liberal’s star candidate, was wreaking such havoc. ‘I’m glad he’s your
candidate, not ours,’ Bacon mocked. ‘You can have him.’ I rang Barns
and tried to reason with him. ‘I defend your right to your views but
have the good sense to can it before the federal poll so you don’t
damage Howard,’ I said. ‘And keep the personal criticism of Howard out
Barns wouldn’t and didn’t. “Howard duly won the
November 10, 2001, poll. But Tasmania performed poorly and the five
Federal House of Representatives seats remained firmly in Labor hands.
Many state Liberals, looking for a scapegoat, unfairly blamed Barns…”
wanted Barns out? Cheek talks about “pressure from the PM down.” He
says “my phone ran hot with calls from Howard’s office and the Federal
Liberal Party director, Lynton Crosby, urging me to get rid of this
“ ‘He’s bad news, he’s caused trouble
wherever he’s gone and you’ll get the same treatment if you endorse
him,’ Crosby warned in a well meaning phone call. I liked and got on
well with Crosby, but unfortunately I shrugged off his advice as skewed
to suit the occasion, anyway, refugee policy was a federal issue.
Tasmania’s only minister, Senator Abetz, a Howard loyalist and at the
opposite end of the political spectrum to Barns, was leading a huge
push in Tasmania to stop Barn’s march towards endorsement. He had
plenty of mates. Most Liberals had been willing to give Barns a chance,
but they drew the line at personal criticism of Howard. He was losing
support fast and Abetz urged me to toss him overboard.
“ ‘I’m telling you the PM and all his Ministers are very upset and want him out,’ Abetz constantly opined…”
the end, a meeting of the Tasmanian Liberal state executive was held at
Campbell Town, halfway between Hobart and Launceston, to consider
disciplinary action against Barns.
By this stage it was easy to
claim that Barns was point scoring against his own party – using his
criticisms of the Prime Minister and then Immigration Minister Philip
Ruddock to boost his own profile – when he should have been commenting
on State issues as a State candidate.
Barns was asked to attend
to show cause why he shouldn’t be disendorsed, the penalty under the
party constitution for his comments. He conducted himself poorly.
he left, meeting proceeded to a vote. State president Doug Chipman was
in the chair and moved that the meeting consider the disciplinary
action. Abetz was notably quiet during the debate but others of his
group took the lead.
The vote that followed was not
overwhelmingly, but solidly, behind the disendorsement action,
Tasmanian Liberal Party sources say. One person who attended describes
it as “a reluctant action by the party”. “Everyone lost that day,” they
Barns told Crikey today that he was “anathema to the Prime
Minister after the ARM.” He says these events occurred “at a period
when they were foaming at the mouth over refugees … it was convenient
for Abetz that he was able to work Crosby and Howard’s office.”
Barns recalls a meeting with Cheek the former leader does not mention
where they spoke about refugees and where Cheek gave him an “OK” to
continue speaking out on the issues.
But Barns says “I’ve got no doubt” that the Prime Minister was behind his dumping.
the message we get from Cheek, too – but in fairness the chain of
events went something like this: Howard gave Abetz a knife and all he
had to do was hold it pointing outwards. Barns impaled himself. A
rather messy episode all round.