Mike Baird

Things are getting complex in the Liberal preselection for Manly.

The Australian has Mike Baird supporting James Griffin, a moderate and former deputy mayor of Manly. Tony Abbott’s forces are said to be backing Walter Villatora, Abbott’s former campaign manager, who was unsuccessful in his bid to replace Bronwyn Bishop in Mackellar.

Also in the mix are Natalie Ward and Alex Dore. Ward is a former deputy chief of staff to Greg Pearce MLC, and rumour has it she will not be staying in the race. That leaves Dore, the NSW divisional president of the Young Liberals, to complete the sausage-fest run alongside Villatora and Griffin.

While the Tele reported on Dore’s close links to both Baird and Abbott, it hasn’t repeated its 2013 story linking Ward to “controversial Liberal powerbroker” Michael Photios via her husband, who (in 2013) was in business with Photios. At that time, the links between Ward’s husband and insurers at a time when insurance reforms were before Parliament caused controversy.

If Ward does drop out, that leaves Dore, Villatora and Griffin. The numbers would appear to be with Griffin if Photios supports him via the 56 votes from the Liberal Party admin committee.

There appears to be some internal unease about Griffin and a perception that he is unsuitable based on opposition to Liberal initiatives like shark nets and Council amalgamations. Whether this is true or simply a smear based on Griffin’s family is unclear. Two Griffins served on Manly Council; Griffin Sr is in this instance Greens councillor Cathy Griffin, who has publicly come out against shark nets.

Tony Abbott’s former campaign manager is no stranger to controversy. Villatora has been the subject of internal nastiness before; a shit-sheet circulated about him during last year’s Mackellar preselection. What it failed to discuss in detail (instead focusing on a resume that was supposedly padded) was his mention at ICAC. When former Liberal official John Caputo was questioned about thousands of dollars in cheques given to former energy minister and hard-right Central Coast MP Chris Hartcher, Walter Villatora was one of the people he threw under the bus as allegedly authorising the payments. Under cross-examination, Caputo testified he re-directed cheques through the Manly State Conference to Hartcher, and named Villatora as someone who authorised the scheme. ICAC would later recommend Hartcher be charged for larceny relating to those cheques. ICAC made no recommendations about Villatora. 

[Baird’s resignation fires starting gun on NSW Liberal factional warfare]

Caputo also didn’t help himself with the party after agreeing to speak at a Christian Democratic Party launch; contributing via ICAC to the downfall of Hartcher won’t have helped his standing either. 

ICAC has cut a swathe through both major parties, and questions are now being asked about a series of companies owned by Villatora. Company searches show him as the director of Gibbs Media Pty Ltd, Gibbs TV Pty Ltd, and Wunkydoo Pty Ltd, as well as others.

For aficionados of Australian children’s literature, these names will ring bells: the “Gibbs” appears to be May Gibbs, and Wunkydoo is gumnut baby Chucklebud’s brother. Upon her death, May Gibbs left her copyright jointly to what is now the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the NSW Society for Crippled Children, now known as Northcott

Managing Gibbs’ legacy has long been a haunt of aspiring Liberal politicians and their families, and it all goes full circle with the preselection for Baird’s seat: the wife of Greg Pearce, Shauna Jarrett, was ousted from the board of Nutcote (the historic home run as a Gibbs museum) by Stephen Barbour, a North Sydney Liberal councillor. 

How Liberal preselectors will deal with this is anyone’s guess. If recent performances are anything to go by, though, Villatora might not be gracious at being passed over again, and the master of white-anting, Tony Abbott, is on hand to assist. Given Villatora is associated with a former PM who makes Kevin Rudd look like a rank amateur in this area, it will be an interesting space to watch. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey