While forces aligned with David Clarke enjoy his preselection victory on Friday night, and Alex Hawke and Nick Campbell pick up the pieces of their failed bid to unseat him, the ultimate winners are probably the voters of NSW. On Friday night the NSW Liberal party – or most of them – showed how much they had changed from the rabble that bungled the 2007 election.
A loss for Clarke – reactionary ogre to many in the party though he is – would have plunged the Liberals back into a civil war between moderates and the Party’s two Right factions that would yet again have endangered the chances of getting rid of a joke of a Labor Government early next year.
Instead, the moderate-Howard right deal held, delivering a comfortable victory to Clarke. Sources in the Clarke camp had predicted last week in Crikey a 12-13 vote victory if the moderates came on board, and in the end Clarke won by 14 votes.
Sources in the Alex Hawke-Nick Campbell “Ambition Faction” have been blaming the moderates ever since, telling the mainstream media it was the moderates’ idea in the first place that arch-monarchist David Elliott take Clarke on.
Clarke was backed by both Tony Abbott and Barry O’Farrell – who greeted preselectors when they arrived and asked them to vote for Clarke. Clarke — somewhat eccentric and not exactly the most engaging of public performers — surprised his opponents when he addressed the meeting, making a conciliatory speech about the importance of small “l” liberals within the party, his work with various religious communities in Sydney’s west, and the need for unity in the lead-up to the election. The conciliatory tone assuaged concerns of middle-of-the-road independents and countered much of the factional focus of media coverage over the previous several weeks.
Elliott, by contrast made what one attendee described as “motherhood statements about business, campaigning and fundraising.” Elliott also criticized O’Farrell’s decision to oppose electricity privatisation, which didn’t go down well with preselectors concerned about his impact on party unity.
The moderates, with the support of O’Farrell and State Director Mark Neeham, also agreed to a “show and tell” arrangement with the Clarke camp, as an act of good faith to demonstrate their support for Clarke, despite efforts by Campbell to thwart it and call out preselectors randomly. The Clarke camp now believes Campbell should resign, given how deeply involved he was in the failed attempt to oust Clarke.
While Clarke’s victory was a humiliation for Hawke – who is said to have told colleagues that Clarke was “a dead man” – and Campbell, the real significance lies in the willingness of moderates to stick to the 2008 power-sharing deal that enabled a truce in the infighting between conservative forces led by Clarke and party moderates.
It was the Right faction that wrecked John Brogden’s leadership when he looked like the next NSW Premier in the wake of Bob Carr’s departure, with Brogden later singling out Hawke for his downfall (no pun intended). Peter Debnam then led a deeply-divided party, torn by accusations of religious extremism, to defeat at the hands of Morris Iemma in 2007.
NSW voters have been paying the price ever since as the Labor Government has lurched from one crisis, and one leader, to the next.
Given the opportunity to help destroy its bête noire in Clarke, moderates opted for unity instead, anticipating that O’Farrell would deliver victory in March next year leading a united party. In the event, it was a smart decision, given Clarke’s ultimate margin of victory. The Liberals have faced a crucial test and passed it.