As expected, Peter Debnam’s deputy, Barry O’Farrell, yesterday declared himself a candidate for leadership of the New South Wales Liberal Party. Unless Debnam can be induced to back down, it looks like being a straight fight between the two, with O’Farrell the strong favorite.

A reader poll in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald was showing O’Farrell well in the lead on 77% from an unusually high vote of over 9,000. Of course, that might just show that his apparatchiks are better at stacking out a poll than their rivals.

If O’Farrell wins, he will be the NSW Liberal Party’s 19th leader since its formation in 1945. Only two of them have ever won an election. No, that’s not a misprint: it’s two out of 19. Few serious political parties anywhere can claim such an unenviable record.

One factor in that record has been the party’s habit of changing leaders in the second half of a parliamentary term. Kerry Chikarovski, John Brogden and Debnam were all given little time to establish themselves before the following election, and all of them failed miserably. O’Farrell at least looks like getting a full four-year stint in the job.

It’s true that more time might not have helped in Debnam’s case. He seems singularly unable to learn from his mistakes; his “concession” speech on Saturday night was a classic of petulant failure to face reality. His apparent determination to fight on in the party room is characteristic.

The powerbrokers of the NSW right, who installed Debnam and now control basically all the organs of the party except the parliamentarians, have to make a choice. They can accept O’Farrell (who initially comes from the right anyway), push Debnam gently aside, and try to present a united front.

Or they can fight him tooth and nail – which almost certainly won’t save Debnam, but will set up a situation where the organisation and the parliamentary leader are bitter enemies.

The sensible choice is obvious. But if the factions were sensible, the NSW Liberal Party wouldn’t be in this sort of mess in the first place.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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