Disgraced former CIA director David Petraeus bombed on a joke about Turnbull’s insurgency, the head of a lobby group said the Liberals needed to win stupid over voters, and the scars were still evident from the 2016 election win at the 59th Liberal Party Federal Council meeting in Sydney.
4.30pm: Delegates, staffers and politicians begin to arrive at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian would later say that the building — opened in December last year — was a testament to Liberal government, but then in the same breath reminded the audience she was the third premier in two terms. Labor’s national conference a few years ago was dominated by people in jeans and T-shirts — usually with union or Labor slogans. Not so for the Liberal Party federal council, which more resembles a conference for a mid-tier accounting firm. Business and power suits are the uniform of the day.
4.45pm: Media are assembled at the top of the escalator, awaiting the arrival of politicians, almost the reverse of how Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign. One delegate gets to the top of the escalator and promptly announces “I’m not anyone important,” and quickly dashes away. Attorney-General George Brandis holds a very brief press conference on the Victorian Supreme Court decision not to go after his colleagues Alan Tudge, Greg Hunt or Michael Sukkar for contempt of court. “I’m not a commentator on the courts,” he says. The “Yarra Three” are nowhere to be seen.
5pm: Those in attendance file through metal detectors before entering the blue-lit conference hall. TVs line the hallway playing anti-Labor attack ads. The Prime Minister, ministers and party officials are seated at a main table on the conference stage surrounded by six Australian flags, while delegates from each of the branches are seated immediately at the front. Peter Dutton, Mitch Fifield, Arthur Sinodinos, Scott Morrison, James Paterson and other Liberal MPs sit further back.
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5.11pm: Outgoing federal Liberal president Richard Alston kicks off the event, and everyone stands for the national anthem. To boost the patriotic feel, an animated Australian flag is put on the TV screens while the anthem plays (just the first verse). There is no acknowledgement of country, though Berejiklian would do one later on.
A video is then played explaining that the Liberals are “not the party of hate” or “the party of anger”. Instead they are a party that rewards effort, while Labor tries to tear people down just for wanting to succeed.
5.20pm: Alston delivers his presidential report. All the appointments go according to plan. Andrew Hirst as federal director, Nick Greiner as president. Alston rallies the troops. The Liberals face fierce opposition from Labor, the unions and GetUp, he says. This is a familiar theme for the evening. Cheers from the audience at describing Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as a charlatan.
5.44pm: There are four vice-president positions to fill and five candidates. Although the Liberals often talk of opposition to quotas, there is a position reserved for a woman. It isn’t needed, however. Three women and only one man are elected. There is some confusion, however, during the voting rounds, and Christopher Pyne has to step up and ask for the ballot to be run again. The candidates’ speeches run the familiar ground of needing to run negative campaigns, because Mediscare and GetUp.
6.16pm: Policy motions are voted on. The first up is one endorsing Menzie’s Forgotten People speech, which is much like getting children to vote for Christmas. It’s followed by an endorsement of the PM’s national security approach. Dutton is warmly welcomed, again children voting for Christmas. Another motion endorsing the government’s approach to small business motion passes without controversy.
6.40pm: The Tasmanian Liberals want handing out how-to-vote cards at polling booths banned. It is a gauntlet where people are harassed and it is quite aggressive, and the Tassie Liberals claim they were outgunned by eight or nine groups in Tasmania. “If you looked at all the how to votes, they all put the Liberal Party last,” the delegate says.
But there is dissent! Two speak against it. The first says people “are not rugby tackled to be given a how-to-vote card if they don’t want it. It is part of our democratic tradition, let’s keep it that way.” Then Marriage Alliance’s Sophie York — who we are convinced is a plant for the pro-marriage equality movement — contributes that it shouldn’t be assumed that low-IQ people or special needs people would vote Labor, and photos on how-to-votes can help their candidates. York appears to still be a member of the Liberals despite questions over how Marriage Alliance added a bunch of NSW Liberal email addresses to its mailing list without permission. After the night’s comments, it is now not clear if she isn’t a plant for another political party.
Regardless, the Tasmanian motion fails, and HTVs remain.
7pm: After a motion on gas reserves, there is a Western Australian motion on reviewing GST distribution — which the PM has already commissioned. “GST is socialist. It leads to a misallocation of sources … dependency on others, and takes away decentralisation of decision making on which our party is based,” the delegate says. The meeting is suspended at 7.20pm so everyone can head to cocktails and dinner, with no decision made.
At the end of the evening meeting, the mentions count is:
Agile and innovative: 1
Jobs and growth: 1
7.30pm: Miranda Devine joins the event, and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce passes her on his way to a private party around the side. Even at the Liberal Party federal council there seems to be a chairman’s lounge. No meringue pies in sight.
8pm: After guests file into the brightly blue-lit dinner hall, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop jokingly advises that all the speeches are off the record. The PM is on a high, after securing the passage of the Gonski 2.0 legislation. The crowd applauds, but the introduction of former PM John Howard and celebrations of former NSW premier Mike Baird and Alston bring many more cheers.
8.30pm: John Howard introduces General David Petraeus by mentioning he first met him in Afghanistan when Petraeus was deployed by George W. Bush. There are cheers for W. “Yes, give George Bush a clap,” Howard says. “He’s a great bloke to work with, and I will always defend him as a good friend.”
9.30pm: Petraeus’ talk goes well. Despite a week of the government talking up the need for immigrants to speak better English because or national security, they for some reason give a pass to someone who leaked national security information to his mistress. Journalists at the event are shocked at all the news coming from his talk — from the South China Sea to encryption to his views on the Trump administration. An anecdote at the start about Petraeus meeting Turnbull two years ago and asking Turnbull where his career was going just days before he flew to Canberra to challenge Tony Abbott the following week goes over well in one half of the room, but it is met with murmurs with another half. Abbott is absent.
10.30pm: Petraeus is given a word of thanks by Andrew “Tasty” Hastie. The former SAS officer brings the war analogy to politics, and it goes well with the crowd.
9.20am: Acting federal director Andrew Bragg discusses the party’s woes. The Liberals are being outspent to the tune of $300 million by an “anti-Liberal, anti-enterprise” cabal including Labor, the Greens, the unions and groups like GetUp. Bragg calls this a democratic deficit and says they must fight “extreme greens and unions” attempting to take over corporate structures, such as the “brazen attempt” to install the GetUp deputy chair at the Press Council (boos from the audience).
“The bottom line is we have to fight harder to stop them,” he says. To that end, he announces the launch of a new Labor Herald-style Liberal publication called “The Fair Go”. There is also a new ad parodying Labor’s infamous white workers ad. Turnbull might have had the better Midwinter Ball speech than Shorten, but this ad was more of the Rowan Dean school of conservative comedy.
9.40am: After a short debate on the GST motion, the next motion is the Young Liberals’ call to keep Australia Day on January 26, and to not change the flag. “National symbols are under attack from the latte-sipping belt,” Eric Abetz staffer Josh Manuatu told the conference. If you needed a sign that this terminology is seriously outdated, there seemed to be several Liberal delegates more than happy with the lattes and soy milk on offer at the coffee cart immediately outside the conference room.
Another delegate makes the case that it is almost the 116th birthday of the Australian flag, and not many people are aware of the “unique” history of the flag (the one that is often confused for New Zealand’s and contains another country’s flag in the top left corner), so they should be promoting this. The motion passes. Children voting for Christmas.
9.54am: After a motion passes in favour of easing restrictions on hunting great white sharks, a contentious debate on moving public servants out of the ACT is held. ACT Liberals are obviously against the policy, and they make the case that it disrupts family life and would result in sending Labor voters into marginal electorates the Liberals are trying to secure. There is vast opposition, mainly from Queensland delegates and MPs. It is interrupted by a speech from Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, but the motion ultimately fails.
“A valiant try, Arthur. and I’m sure the people of the ACT will be very grateful for you,” Alston says.
11.04am: After morning tea, more motions on electricity, aged care, and divorce assets pass with little controversy, then at 11.30 Treasurer Scott Morrison stands to deliver his widely reported (in The Daily Telegraph) speech that Menzies’ Forgotten People have forgotten politicians and have tuned out the media. Following his speech, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop speaks. In one awkward moment, the camera cuts to Tony Abbott. He realises the camera is on him and has the most pained and uncomfortable look on his face. Turnbull gets up to speak at noon. It is notable that the biggest cheer he receives is for mentioning Abbott, a greater reception than he gets mentioning Gonski or the other 125 pieces of legislation that have passed through Parliament since the election. The citizenship legislation and stopping the boats are also popular in the room. Turnbull makes it through his entire speech about energy without mentioning climate change.
At the end of his speech, and as the public component of the council meeting drew to a close, the PM is given a standing ovation. Journalists attempt to see if Abbott is among those standing, but he could not be spotted — perhaps he adjourned to the foyer to have a soy latte?