Spare a thought for poor old Barry O’Farrell. Just when he is trying to build transport networks and balance the budget, a long-simmering factional brawl within the NSW Liberals is threatening to derail his plans.
Despite the NSW Premier coming out last month to say that there was no place for “wannabe Joe Tripodis” in the Liberal Party, the hard-right faction wasn’t listening. They’ve initiated a court action that has the potential to affect next year’s federal election.
All of this in a week in which South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi has highlighted what the far-right of the Liberal Party can look like — homophobic, xenophobic, climate change deniers. (Interestingly, the teenage Bernardi represented Australia in rowing, a sport in which you move backwards — which may reflect his world view.)
Yesterday a member of the Robertson branch of the Libs, Denis Pogson, initiated legal action in the NSW Supreme Court aimed at stopping a meeting of the party’s state council from going ahead on Saturday. Most sensible people would assume the members of the Robertson branch are devoting every waking moment to the removal of Labor members Deborah O’Neill and the neighbouring Craig Thomson, but this is perhaps not the case.
Far right-wing powerbroker Chris Hartcher, the 66-year-old Minister for Resources and Energy, is reportedly behind the action, which is designed to force the all-powerful state executive of the party to change the constitution to allow “plebiscites” or direct election of state and federal candidates. It is also seeking to abolish the “special powers” of the state executive, which allow it to override the branches to impose their own candidates when the branches preselect someone particularly unelectable.
Hartcher and his faction argue that if the rules were changed it would enable more “grassroots participation” in community politics. However, the centre-right and left factions of the party, which control the state executive, are afraid that it would lead to branch-stacking. This is a vulnerable time for the party, as it has not yet preselected candidates in up to 12 federal seats. The mooted changes would also mean the hard-right could unseat vulnerable sitting members, including Philip Ruddock and Bronwyn Bishop, along with the youthful Alex Hawke, who used to be an acolyte of right-wing MP David Clarke and is now a bitter enemy.
All of which is a major headache for Tony Abbott, who complained that the party’s poor showing in NSW in 2010 was a direct result of the factional in-fighting and consequent delay in preselecting candidates. The party is particularly unhappy with this public airing of dirty laundry, with one lawyer yesterday anxiously approaching me to ask how many media were in court and where we were from.
One thing you could say for Joe Tripodi — at least his factional manoeuvring never reached a courtroom. If Antony Roberts and Chris Hartcher really want to be known as factional powerbrokers, they are going to have to learn to twist a few arms in private.
Justice William Nicholas will bring down his decision this afternoon.