The new Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, is soon to face two electoral tests in the Liberal heartland of Sydney’s northern suburbs: the preselections, then byelections, to replace former health minister Jillian Skinner and Berejiklian’s predecessor as premier, Mike Baird.
The race for Baird’s seat of Manly has drawn the most attention thus far. This is due not only to the star quality that still lingers over Teflon Mike, but the proxy war being fought between the moderates aligned to Michael Photios and the more conservative forces, aligned to former PM Tony Abbott.
Local Liberals are despairing at the public brawling. As reported in Crikey, it appears likely the only woman in the contest, Greg Pearce’s former staffer Natalie Ward, will drop out. On the face of it this might seem a loss for gender balance in the party, but rumour suggests she may have a wink-and-nod deal to replace Pearce when he goes, giving her a constituent-free upper house seat. That leaves three: Abbott’s campaign manager Walter Villatora, local Mayor James Griffin, and Alex Dore, the NSW divisional president of the Young Liberals.
Nasty words are flying about Griffin, who was referred to as “Spawn of the Greens“ when The Australian gleefully chronicled a protest held outside Tony Abbott’s office it linked to Griffin. The link drawn between Griffin and the protest is his mother, a local Greens councillor, who was protesting against energy policy, with the pearl-clutching implication it was highly improper to be associated in any way with protests against the leader-in-exile. At this stage the implied criticism seems two-fold: that Griffin is a tree Tory who has chosen the blue side of the turquoise line but may waver over it at any stage, with added sniggering implying he is too young and tied to his mother’s apron strings to be taken seriously.
This might not matter, though, if the reports of Photios swinging the 56 admin committee votes behind Griffin are accurate, a report that is proving to be a source of considerable angst to some local Liberals. The complaint in this area remains the same as with the election of Trent Zimmerman to Joe Hockey’s vacancy and Jason Falinski’s election to the seat of Mackellar, vacated by Bronwyn “Choppergate” Bishop: that local party democracy is being stifled.
There is a factional flavour to the complaints. Abbott’s camp has been critical of preselection processes before, with the ABC reporting in 2015 three party members had been suspended for speaking against current preselection processes and urging further democratic reform in local preselections. In the ABC story one Liberal member is quoted as saying the suspensions only fed negative media interest, and were self-serving and petty; it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Abbott’s preferred candidate, Walter Villatora, was praised by the member for Warringah for supporting party reform, but questions might be asked about whether this would be the case if conservative tendencies held the numbers on the admin committee.
All this has either a nauseating familiarity or a picaresque flavour to it for NSW politics watchers. Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi et al were notorious for fiddling while Rome burned, installing premiers and obsessing over local government elections while the ALP’s support plummeted. Some worry the same will apply in Manly in particular for the Liberals. Before Baird, the seat was held by independents for 16 years. The Liberal Party should expect a swing against it, perhaps one even beyond the normal anti-incumbency numbers. On that basis, should anyone be taking Manly for granted?