As NSW Parliament resumes today after a six-week winter break, maverick Liberal MP Peter Phelps has stolen the limelight with a challenge to party solidarity.
Phelps, a leader of the right-wing faction, courted the party’s disciplinary procedures when he launched an overnight attack on the party room decision to shut down greyhound racing from July next year.
If his vocal opposition persists and he votes against the closure on the floor of the upper house, Phelps could face suspension or even expulsion from the Liberals.
He would then have to move to the crossbenches, making life more difficult for Premier Mike Baird’s government. At present the Coalition does not have an upper house majority and relies upon Fred Nile’s party and the Shooters, Fishers & Farmers Party, both with two MPs, to obtain a majority for its legislation.
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After a Liberal party room meeting on Monday, which was adjourned for a full Coalition meeting today, Phelps went public with the tenuous argument that a greyhound racing ban made possible a ban on thoroughbred horse racing as well.
“I worry that there is a selective morality being applied by the government,” Phelps said. “You’re left with the situation where the only possible conclusion is, well, it’s all right to attack the greyhound industry because it’s only got a small number of participants.
“Whereas a larger number of participants in the horse racing industry means they remain inviolate from any sort of government action.”
Phelps’ arguments about a future ban on horse racing are disingenuous. Baird and Sports Minister Troy Grant, the Deputy Premier, Nationals leader and a racehorse enthusiast, have made abundantly clear that thoroughbred racing will remain intact as an iconic part of sporting life.
Phelps is a pathological maverick. In March this year he resigned as government whip in the Legislative Council after protesting against the draconian legislation to mandate an ethanol content to petrol sold at service stations.
In a 2013 speech on the 40th anniversary of General Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende, Phelps told MPs that he supported the armed overthrow of the Chilean government.
So what’s behind Phelps’s anti-Baird agitation? His fellow backbenchers told Crikey that Phelps sees himself as a rallying point for the Liberals’ conservative faction.
They say that he is daring Baird and the party hierarchy to take disciplinary action and thereby turn him into a “martyr”.
As one Liberal explained: “If you want to know what Peter is doing, study the antics of [Senator] Cory Bernardi. One is trying to destabilise Malcolm [Turnbull] while the other is trying destabilise Mike [Baird].”
The political problem for the Coalition leaders is that the Phelps’ contagion is infecting the ranks of both parties.
Kevin Humphries, Nationals MP for Barwon who was dumped from the ministry when his rival Troy Grant won the party leadership, has threatened to cross the floor to vote against the greyhound racing ban. Lismore MP Thomas George is another National who passionately opposes the greyhound racing ban.
At the same time, two lower house Liberals, Kevin Connolly from Riverstone in western Sydney and Jai Rowell from Wollondilly on the south-western edge of Sydney, have raised questions about the sweeping shutdown and its impact on jobs and polling.
Opposition Leader Luke Foley has seized the opportunity to support greyhound racing and attack the Baird plan. His opponents are asking why he has become such a fervent supporter of greyhound racing where animal cruelty is chronic but has failed to take a determined stand against the ransacking of TAFE.
Note to ticket holders: Parliament opens today for a limited six-day season of vaudeville, pantomime and melodrama. Book now or switch off.