So the Liberals continue to shiver themselves to pieces in the aftermath of Malcolm Turnbull’s axing. In announcing her resignation, member for Gilmore Ann Sudmalis — like Julia Banks and Malcolm Turnbull before her — tossed a match over her shoulder on her way across the bridge, making allegations of bullying, harassment, “plotting and manipulation“.
But Sudmalis went further than any of the others, naming names. Or, specifically, one name: NSW state MP Gareth Ward.
“Bullying, betrayal and back-stabbing have been the hallmarks of one of my state Liberal colleagues, Gareth Ward, over the past six-and-a-half years,” she said in her speech, before announcing she wouldn’t contest the next election. “This is not the first time that Gareth has flexed his vengeance on strong Liberal women. He doesn’t just get even; he annihilates anyone who opposes him.”
Ward, for his part, rejected the claim. “I was bullied as a kid and went to hell and back, so to be called a bully as an adult is not only hurtful but absolutely not true,” he said. “I have disagreements with a lot of people, but that is what happens internally in politics.”
So is it Ward’s alleged “narcissistic revenge” that pushed Sudmalis to the exit? Does the fact she’s approaching an election with a margin of 0.7% and a government in chaos also have something to do with it? Let’s look at the messy past of these best of frenemies.
Ward and Sudmalis have a long history. In 2010, Ward — previously an independent councillor on the Shoalhaven City Council — secured preselection for Kiama over Sudmalis, who had run unsuccessfully in the seat in 2007.
When Sudmalis secured preselection for Gilmore in 2012, she ran against Andrew Guile, who had backed Ward in 2010. The Illawarra Mercury reported that “the race for Gilmore preselection has been dogged by factional infighting, with some members suspended and others resigning in disgust at the ‘dirty’ tactics”.
In 2016 Sudmalis took the remarkable step of signing a petition indicating she would vote against Ward (and fellow state Liberal MP Shelley Hancock) over the Baird government’s plans to merge Kiama and Shoalhaven councils (she later claimed she thought she was signing an attendance register). “She’s just signed her own death warrant,” an unnamed Liberal source told the Illawarra Mercury at the time.
The meddlin’ media
In her speech, Sudmalis also singled out the South Coast Register as providing Ward with a vessel of enmity against her. And certainly the paper has not held back: in May they ran several pieces critical of Sudmalis — first reporting the assertion of “a senior local Liberal member” who said local party support for Sudmalis has collapsed.
Two weeks later, in a piece titled “Missteps and blunders haunt embattled MP Ann Sudmalis” they quoted a “frustrated senior local Liberal” who was “sick of the circus that seems to follow her wherever she goes”:
That source joined a long list of local party members who since 2013 have privately voiced their dissatisfaction with the MP’s performance. They don’t speak publicly because if they do, they face disciplinary action, including expulsion from the party. But they do talk, and often.
And when Sudmalis quit, Register editor John Hanscombe couldn’t help noting that she had bucked the trend in 2013 — in the midst of the Abbott government’s comfortable victory, Gilmore actually swung away from the Libs. He ended pointedly by mentioning that her statement alleging damaging leaks to the media and undermining from Ward was not given to the Register, or the Mercury.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian were both equivocal in their response to the allegations.
“My experience with Gareth is that he’s a hard-working local member but I say this — no workplace anywhere, no organisation, has room for bullying full stop and if people raise these issues, they need to be looked at,” Berejiklian said, adding she didn’t think Ward was a bully.
Meanwhile, Morrison leaned towards Sudmalis, saying “sometimes people, they can find this job just a bit too much at times without that support locally, from some of the local party members that she’s identified, and that’s unfortunate”.