Trent Zimmerman and Malcolm Turnbull 

If, as expected, Trent Zimmerman wins Saturday’s North Sydney byelection to succeed former treasurer Joe Hockey, the Liberals will claim their candidate has achieved a significant victory.

But harder heads will acknowledge that Zimmerman defeated 12 other candidates by virtue of the rising popularity of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Premier Mike Baird. They are entitled to share the honours.

Liberal and swinging voters will not be intentionally voting for Zimmerman, because they hardly know him. He has been parachuted into the seat by the faction, previously known as “The Group”, which represents the “wet” side of the party.

If elected, Zimmerman will be the first openly gay Liberal MP. A former member of Hockey’s staff, Zimmerman is currently the party’s state president, a position he would continue to hold as North Sydney’s new MP.

At the Liberal preselection in October, 40 local members voted, but their verdict was swamped by 40 votes from the party’s state executive and state council. Most of these votes went to Zimmerman.

This has led to an anti-Zimmerman backlash during the byelection campaign, and it seems clear that this will result in a savaging of Hockey’s generous margin of 15.9%.

The only danger for Zimmerman will arise if his primary vote falls below 50% and preferences come into play. His leading opponent is the independent candidate Dr Stephen Ruff, an eminent orthopaedic consultant and seasoned campaigner who has the backing of the seat’s former immensely popular independent MP Ted Mack.

Without a Labor candidate, Ruff will also collect ALP support and Green preferences pledged by the environmental candidate, Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, a former NSW upper house MP, who is tipped to claim third place.

Zimmerman’s controversial candidacy has highlighted a larger political problem. For inexplicable reasons, Baird pays little attention to organisational manoeuverings within his own party. He prefers to run the executive government and allow the head office in Woolloomooloo to look after itself.

When Bob Carr was premier (1995-2005) he allowed the ALP’s Sussex Street headquarters the same licence. The consequences were disastrous, and the ALP is still recovering from the era of neglect.

Zimmerman’s deputy president of the Liberal Party is councillor Kent Johns, a former mayor of the Sutherland Shire Council and a former Labor mayor of Rockdale.

Johns made the switch from Labor to Liberal when he was elected to Sutherland Shire Council in 2004, becoming mayor eight years later. He briefly stood down from the position in 2013-14 when the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigated allegations that he favoured associates with council contracts. Subsequently the commission cleared him of any wrongdoing.

Johns has set his sights on winning Liberal preselection for the federal seat of Hughes, currently held by Tony Abbott supporter Craig Kelly, a former rugby union player.

The NSW “wets” are targeting Kelly and, incredibly, are rallying behind Johns, a former Labor mayor, to send him on his way to Canberra on $190,000 a year.

Both Turnbull and Baird are running into stormy weather as they recalibrate the NSW Liberal division from the right to the centre.

Expect more fireworks as the Howardistas and Abbottstanis go down the gurgler.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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