Federal Member for Mitchell Alex Hawke has backed a ruling of the NSW Liberal Party’s disputes panel, claiming it vindicates his shutdown of a rowdy Young Liberals meeting last September held at his electorate office and attended by police.

A nine-page decision issued last week by senior lawyer and potential Liberal candidate for the state seat of Davidson, Alister Henskens, contradicts a previous ruling in January by Liberal state director Mark Neeham, which found Hawke had acted legally to stop a gaggle of  “young Turks” loyal to upper house MP David Clarke from running riot.

In his judgment, Henskens says a number of Clarke loyalists should be accepted in to the Baulkham Hills Young Liberal branch, and that the pre-screening of attendees outside the office was illegal under the party’s constitution. But the report also appears to clear Hawke of any personal wrongdoing.

“The disputes committee notes that I was wise and correct to close the meeting. I acted appropriately and I stand by my actions,” Hawke told Crikey.

“I closed it because there were a couple of girls coming up to me saying they were assaulted.”

At the meeting, an edgy stand-off over party memberships in Hawke’s conference room threatened to descend into chaos before the federal MP called the cops amid allegations of physical violence from both sides.

In a triumphant email responding to the decision, Tim Abrams, the past-president of the Mitchell Federal Electoral Council who submitted the complaint begged to differ, claiming anti-Hawke forces had emerged victorious.

“I have now received the ruling confirming that the behaviour of preventing members from entering the meeting and calling the Police was inappropriate. I am pleased to report that the constitution has been upheld and the rights of members of our Party have been protected.

“The decision accurately sets the record straight and notes there was NO basis or reason to stop the meeting by Alex Hawke MP or indeed his calling for the police to attend.”

But Hawke slammed that interpretation, telling Crikey this morning he was right to end the meeting when he did, and adding that the conflict over “a technical constitutional matter” was still subject to a final review.

“You’re a journalist, I’m confident that if you read it [the report] yourself you’ll find that my actions were justified.”

Henskens ruled that “the member of Parliament was wise to exercise his rights as the occupier of the premises and to attempt to ensure that a contentious and potentially rowdy meeting at his office was not capable of causing political embarrassment for the Party.” However, he also said the meeting should have continued at another location.

A separate ruling issued in relation to a meeting of the Hills Young Liberal branch a week before also appears to confirm a number of leading Clarke foot soldiers’ memberships.

Hawke, who has declared war on his former boss’s hardline stance since his election to the federal parliament, said the matter will now proceed to the dispute committee’s full panel, involving a Queens Counsel and two senior barristers.

At the time, he claimed “violent pushing and shoving” had occurred at the meeting, shortly before he called the local constabulary to intervene. But police weren’t impressed at the diversion of resources, branding the whole fracas a media stunt and “storm in a teacup”. A YouTube video shows Hawke lingering in the background while opposing factions gather menacingly.

Tensions inside the NSW Liberals have cooled after a vote on Clarke’s upper house preselection in February endorsed the sitting member with unlikely support from party moderates. The lead-up to the ballot was marked by aggressive jockeying between state Liberal president and Hawke acolyte Nick Campbell with “World War Three” only narrowly averted.

According to Liberal insiders, the latest flare-up could spill over innto preselections for next year’s state poll, ignite a fresh period of infighting and harm opposition leader Barry O’Farrell, who is riding high following Saturday’s Penrith by-election.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey