For many a long decade, and the last few years especially, factional power and the faceless men (seldom women) who wield it have commonly been recognised as a scourge of the ALP.

Lately though, it’s increasingly fallen to the Liberal Party to have newspaper headlines characterise its internal affairs through references to Game of Thrones.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull himself drew unwelcome attention to this state of affairs at the New South Wales Liberal Party’s state council meeting in October, at which his ill-advised boast that the party was “not run by factions” received an audibly incredulous response from attendees who had found themselves on the wrong end of an internal party tussle just moments before.

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Turnbull’s claim was true in the sense that the Liberal Party lacks the tightly disciplined structures of Left and Right that have governed the ALP since at least the 1980s.

However, it remains an iron law that any organisation offering power and glory to those who climb to its peak will give rise to cliques, alliances, networks or whatever other term short of “faction” one might choose to prefer.

It can certainly be said that there is a greater fluidity to the internal power structures of the Liberal Party, which frequently break apart and reformulate without the outside world much noticing.

The Turnbull ascendancy has nonetheless sharpened an overarching divide between ideological conservatives and moderate pragmatists, which has been nowhere more evident than in the Prime Minister’s home state.

New South Wales has historically nurtured harsher strains of conservatism than Deakinite, liberal Victoria, but a number of factors have caused the right’s sway in the state branch to dissipate in recent years, chief among which has been bitter divisions between rival powerbrokers.

The result has been a moderate ascendancy that now stands to be disruptively exercised in the looming round of federal preselections, which have so far been delayed by a redistribution of electoral boundaries due to be finalised in the coming weeks.

Redistributions put strains on fragile power balances at the best of times, and some of the proposals in the draft boundaries that were recently published by the Australian Electoral Commission could almost have been designed with that very end in mind.

In the seat of Hughes in Sydney’s outer south, Tony Abbott loyalist Craig Kelly stands to have two conservative branches at the Liverpool end of his electorate transferred to the Labor-held seat of Fowler, while gaining a moderate-controlled branch in the Sutherland Shire.

That leaves him exposed to a formidable threat to his preselection, most likely from Sutherland Shire councillor and influential moderate Kent Johns.

Outside of his immediate home turf, the loss of Kelly from Australia’s public life probably wouldn’t be noticed much.

But it could be a very different story in the seat of Hume, held by a widely acknowledged rising star in Angus Taylor.

Taylor has burnished his conservative credentials by campaigning against wind power and the “new climate religion”, although his loyalties in the September leadership contest were unclear (and to the surprise of many, he did not win promotion in the reshuffle that followed).

The proposed redistribution does Taylor a particularly awkward turn by having Hume trade rural territory for the Sydney fringe centre of Camden — an area dominated by a formerly right-aligned local grouping dubbed the “southern cartel”, which has recently sniffed the breeze and thrown its lot in with the moderates.

The Australian reports that Taylor could now face a challenge from Macarthur MP Russell Matheson, who is otherwise set to lose around 8% of his margin as Macarthur trades Camden for Minto and Ingleburn.

Such a move would seem particularly cheeky on the moderates’ part, given Matheson’s low profile and the fact that Macarthur will continue to encompass Campbelltown, where Matheson began his political career as mayor.

Adding further insult to injury, moderates are also said to be hatching plans to take on the Senate preselection of Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, an ideological and factional warrior of the right, along with John Alexander, the inoffensive and factionally unaligned member for John Howard’s old seat of Bennelong.

As if this array of interlocking power struggles weren’t enough, further trouble could yet unfold across a string of highly prized Sydney seats that stand to be vacated at the election by Tony Abbott (Warringah), Philip Ruddock (Berowra) and Bronwyn Bishop (Mackellar).

All of which would pose a searching test of any leader’s powers of consensus-building and diplomacy — attributes that the Prime Minister, for all his extensive personal qualities, has never particularly called to mind.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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