While John Howard reigns supreme in Canberra, the state divisions of his party often seem to be competing for which can be the most dysfunctional.

New South Wales is certainly a strong contender: only two of its 18 leaders have ever won an election, and that doesn’t look like changing next March.

So it’s interesting to see the contrast between Howard and his NSW counterpart, Peter Debnam, in the influence they have over party preselections.

According to Glenn Milne in this morning’s Australian, Howard is backing Senator Marise Payne for re-endorsement, rejecting the “winner-takes-all approach” of his own right faction. This is probably less of “a judgment of character and performance” and more a concern about the havoc a dumped left-winger might wreak in the Senate, but it’s consistent with Howard’s general preference for stability.

Debnam, however, also trying to protect a sitting left-winger, failed miserably on Saturday with the victory of right-wing challenger Ray Williams over incumbent Steven Pringle for the safe seat of Hawkesbury.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Pringle is likely to resign from the party and run as an independent.

That’s par for the course in NSW; in 2003, when Pringle was one of several new left candidates backed by then-leader John Brogden, the right fielded independents against them, and in Willoughby the endorsed candidate scraped in by just 144 votes.

No doubt Debnam sees himself as following Howard in trying to hose down the factions. But there’s a big difference between government and opposition: Howard and his sitting members have the runs on the board, while business-as-usual for the state party means staying in the wilderness forever.

There could hardly be a better time for the NSW Liberals to clear out their dead wood. Protecting mediocrity doesn’t stop factional warfare, it just exacerbates it – as former leader Robert Doyle discovered in Victoria.

There will be another two opportunities in the next month, with preselections for North Shore and Davidson, held by long-serving members from left and right respectively. Debnam is backing both, but it remains to be seen if the party will heed him any more than they did in Hawkesbury.

Peter Fray

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