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As far as the public was concerned, the most notable event of the NSW Liberal Party’s state council meeting last weekend was the heckling delivered to the Prime Minister after he boasted that the party was “not run by factions”.

However, those who were observing proceedings more closely didn’t need to rely on the word of disgruntled Tony Abbott loyalists to conclude that factional power in the party was alive and well.

The meeting also brought about the demise of a reform push that would have thrown party preselections wide open to the rank and file, thanks to backroom machinations that would have done the party’s rivals at Sussex Street proud.

The subject is particularly sensitive for the NSW Liberal Party at the moment, as its preselections for the next federal election have so far been on ice pending a redistribution of the state’s electoral boundaries — a process that reaches a milestone today with the Australian Electoral Commission’s publication of draft boundaries, with a final resolution scheduled for the end of February.

When the ball finally gets rolling, some of the party’s most glittering prizes are likely to be in play, including Tony Abbott’s Manly-based seat of Warringah, Joe Hockey’s seat of North Sydney immediately to the west, Bronwyn Bishop’s seat of Mackellar immediately to the north, and Philip Ruddock’s seat of Berowra in Sydney’s outer north.

At present, the party determines its preselections through votes involving branch delegates together with a “central component” consisting of representatives from the state council and state executive.

Under the thwarted reform plan, this system would have been replaced by plebiscites open to all financial members of the party from the electorate in question.

This sounded particularly appealing to the party’s religious right faction, which, among other things, is noted for its talents in mobilising branch support.

But it was considerably less pleasing to the ears of the ascendant moderate faction — which, in alliance with the forces of the centre-right, was the dominant force at state council.

What emerged from the wreckage was a compromise brokered by NSW Premier Mike Baird, in which plebiscites will be trialled in a small number of state and federal seats over the next five years.

The outcome was part of a recurring pattern on both sides of the political fence in which grand visions of reform have been proposed to address a perceived crisis of democratic legitimacy in modern party politics, only to meet decisive resistance from the very forces they are designed to overcome.

Another thread common to such schemes is that they are often the work of party elders who discover an appetite for reform that wasn’t always evident during their own time in office.

While the immediate impetus for the weekend’s reform push was provided by Walter Villatora, the local party president in Tony Abbott’s electorate, the reforms sought to give effect to recommendations from a post-election review panel headed by John Howard.

Among other things, the panel’s report argued that party plebiscites would “contribute to the weakening of factional influences”.

A similar tale has often been heard from the Labor Party as it has grappled with its image problems and attendant electoral failures going back to its poor show at the 2010 federal election.

On that occasion, Senator John Faulkner and two of the party’s most successful premiers, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr, produced a report that recommended a radical new preselection model with 60% of the vote determined by the rank and file, 20% by members of affiliated unions, and another 20% by a public vote open to anyone willing to sign on as registered Labor supporters.

In common with most of the other reform ideas proposed in the report, that plan has since been all but forgotten.

When the ALP held its national conference in July, a more modest proposal to have the party’s state conferences surrender half of the vote in Senate preselections to a rank-and-file ballot likewise met decisive resistance from powerbrokers, despite having the endorsement of a brace of former senior federal ministers and state premiers.

As often as not, those resisting such plans have been motivated by a crude desire to protect their fiefdoms.

However, arguments that internal democracy is not always in a party’s electoral interests can’t always be dismissed out of hand.

Given that the Liberal Party has just dispensed with the services of a Prime Minister who had led it dangerously far to the right on a number of fronts, there is some force to factional moderates’ arguments that democratised preselections would empower well-mobilised radical elements, just as the Tea Party has done for the Republicans in the United States.

Tellingly, reform talk has also been heard recently from the Liberal Party’s Victorian branch, which instituted reforms in 2010 that were not unlike those that have just foundered in New South Wales.

This process caused immense headaches last year for then-premier Denis Napthine, when party members in the safe seat of Kew preselected Tim Smith, an arch conservative Young Turk, ahead of senior government minister Mary Wooldridge, whose existing seat had been abolished in a redistribution.

Earlier this year, leaked recordings revealed that the party’s recently installed state president, Michael Kroger, considered that the system benefited “careerists” whose chief qualification was that they had courted favour with members through party committee work.

In Kroger’s view, this had left the party starved of parliamentarians with skills in raising funds and communicating the party’s message through the media, and played a key role in the defeat of the Napthine government in last year’s state election.

Peter Fray

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