Fault lines within conservative politics rumbled across the land over the weekend, as a series of fascinating preselection contests unfolded in three states.
The unifying issue was the influence of a loosely defined Christian right, which emerged with a mix of successes and failures.
The successes were in Tasmania, where the Liberals determined the order of their Senate ticket in the event of a double dissolution.
The selection of a full complement of Senate candidates is a significant event in Tasmania, where scarcely a street corner fails to house a Senator’s electorate office, thanks to the constitution’s requirement of equal representation for the states regardless of their population.
For a compact Tasmanian party branch to determine the occupants of four or five of these offices entails a formidable concentration of power in a small number of hands.
This is particularly true if the branch is under the sway of a ruling faction, which is certainly how things appear for the Tasmanian Liberals after the events of the weekend.
The power of the right, and in particular of Senator Eric Abetz, was already evident during last September’s leadership contest, when only one out of seven Tasmanian Liberals was so much as suspected of supporting Malcolm Turnbull.
The exception was Senator Richard Colbeck, whom Turnbull went on to promote to the outer ministry in the Tourism and International Education portfolios, partly compensating Tasmania for Abetz’s dumping from cabinet.
The most explicit signal of Abetz’s power on Saturday was his own success in winning top position — no surprise perhaps, since his is the only name that would mean much to observers outside Tasmania.
But the more significant fact of the Senate ticket, apart from an absence of women to match the state party’s all-male House of Representatives contingent, is that the only Tasmanian of ministerial rank was relegated to No. 5.
Colbeck’s list of offences, as conservatives might perceive them, is actually rather modest: the mere likelihood that he supported the current Prime Minister in a leadership contest, in common with the majority of his colleagues nationally, and his reported willingness to countenance a conscience vote on same-sex marriage.
But it seems this was enough to have him shunted from the top of the ticket, as he was at the election in 2013, to a loseable position three years later.
As well as Abetz, those above Colbeck include two hitherto lower-placed colleagues — Senate President Stephen Parry at No. 2, and David Bushby at No. 4 — Bushby is best remembered for miaowing at Labor’s Penny Wong during a committee hearing.
At No. 3 is newcomer Jonathan Duniam, a 32-year-old political staffer described by local observer Greg Barns as the “ideological love child” of Abetz.
Another state where religious conservatives have been mobilising in the Liberal Party is Western Australia, and here too an Abetz has been involved — in this case Peter Abetz, brother of Eric and member for the state seat of Southern River on Perth’s southern edge.
Abetz is closely allied to Nick Goiran, a state upper house MP whose rapid rise as a Liberal powerbroker is being spoken of in awed tones by observers of WA politics.
Goiran joined the Liberal Party just a few years before entering Parliament in 2008, having previously been active in the Christian Democratic Party. His father, Gerard Goiran, was the CDP’s state director and lead Western Australian Senate candidate in 2007, and now works part-time in Peter Abetz’s electorate office.
In shifting their efforts to the Liberal Party, the Goirans have built a powerful network through southern suburbs branches, which has lately been making its presence felt in federal and state preselections.
This process came to a head on Saturday, when the party’s state council met to say yea or nay to federal candidates chosen in local party ballots the previous weekend.
Among the results confirmed was the defeat of Dennis Jensen in Tangney, who was trounced in the local ballot by the party’s former state director, Ben Morton.
Despite his hands-on role in bringing down Tony Abbott, Jensen fondly hoped that religious conservatives would be the ace up his sleeve in the southern suburbs seat; he is now pursuing legal action against some of those he blames for depriving him of it.
Of more direct interest to the Goiran camp was the new seat of Burt, where it secured victory in last week’s ballot for Liz Storer, a local councillor who has worked for both Nick Goiran and Peter Abetz.
However, Storer’s path to Parliament has now been blocked by the state council, which also delivered a blow to the Goiran faction in a hotly contested preselection for the state seat of Bateman.
The apparent mismatch between the faction’s local muscle and its strength at the upper echelons of the party organisation should sound familiar to Liberal Party observers in New South Wales, where an organisationally marginalised religious right is campaigning for preselection reforms that would give greater power to the branch membership.
In the case of Burt, the response to charges that the state council behaved undemocratically in overturning a local result is that Storer’s initial win was determined by a vote of just 25 preselectors. According to one Liberal source, there might have been an entirely different outcome if a solitary latecomer had been allowed admission to the meeting.
The state council’s decision to take the matter into its own hands presumably bodes well for the candidate Storer defeated — Matt O’Sullivan, who runs mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s GenerationOne indigenous employment scheme, and was endorsed by Victorian federal MP Alan Tudge and Barnett government minister Joe Francis.
Meanwhile, another instance of a party establishment figure prevailing over an ideological activist was unfolding in Queensland, where the Liberal National Party chose a successor to Ian Macfarlane in the Toowoomba-based seat of Groom.
This pitted the safe option of John McVeigh — state member for Toowoomba South, agriculture minister in Campbell Newman’s government and son of Tom McVeigh, who represented the area federally from 1972 to 1988 — against David van Gend, a prominent social conservative and founder of the Australian Marriage Forum.
Despite support for van Gend from former deputy prime minister John Anderson, Senator Joanna Lindgren and former senator Ron Boswell, McVeigh had a comfortable win in the local ballot, reportedly by a margin of around 40 votes.
He is now set to enter the national stage, barring an insurgency at the election from a minor party or independent — a danger that can never be taken lightly in regional Queensland.