Even before the results came in, the Pittwater campaign had been marked by feverish leaking from within the Liberal Party both for and against its candidate and the leadership of Peter Debnam. Now that the disaster has struck, the gloves are really off.
Today’s lead story in the Sydney Morning Herald shows the recriminations. The right blames John Brogden’s failure to explicitly endorse his would-be successor; echoing the Latham pancreatitis debate, they dismiss Brogden’s health concerns: “‘He’s been seen at football games and functions,’ one right-winger said.”
The view from the left is that the electorate has repudiated the right’s takeover of the party. “‘This was a referendum on what the party did to John,’ one senior left figure said.”
In reality, there’s enough blame to be shared. Glenn Milne has the right idea in today’s Australian: “above all it’s the fact that the Liberal Party is so publicly and bitterly splintered in NSW that is probably the overriding reason for the defeat. … [Right and left] constantly conduct violent factional warfare in the pages of Sydney’s newspapers.”
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The contrast with Victoria, where the party is shaping up for its own showdown tomorrow, is instructive. Liberal Party factions there are based on personalities, not ideology; there is no equivalent of the NSW division’s religious right. The factions therefore get less publicity, but their hostility is just as uncompromising. As I said on Stateline last Friday, there are “two factions neither of which can accept the legitimacy of the other. So they’re locked into this cycle of civil war.”
Victorian Liberals sometimes envy the other states, believing that an ideological divide would at least put some limit on factional warfare. As in the ALP, each side could accept that the other had a role to play. But New South Wales shows the downside of that model: ideological warfare can get just as bitter as the post-ideological sort, and when it does it gets played out in the daily papers.
Regardless of where the Liberal factions come from, somehow they need to develop a culture of power-sharing. So far the prospects don’t look good.