A wave of recriminations is sweeping through the NSW Liberal party over the division’s performance and the delays in preselecting candidates for NSW federal seats, resulting in most being chosen only weeks before last month’s national election.
Blame is being leveled at the unwieldy, faction-riven state executive, at the former prime minister Scott Morrison and his “captain’s picks”, and at his delegate on the state executive, Alex Hawke, who had been widely blamed for holding up preselections by failing to make himself available for months to vet candidates.
Some also blame Covid lockdowns, which interfered with the party’s ability to hold branch plebiscites using the new “Warringah” rules, designed to give members a much bigger say.
The 2022 federal election was the first time these were operational. Still, Covid restrictions meant the party could not hold rank-and-file preselections, which in some cases would have required up to 800 members to gather face-to-face.
The result was a wave of losses in seats where candidates and sitting members were only endorsed just days before the election was called.
These included Gilmore, where Andrew Constance lost by just over 200 votes; North Sydney, where Trent Zimmerman lost to independent Kylea Tink; and Warringah, where Morrison chose anti-trans campaigner Katherine Deves to run against popular independent Zali Steggall after other candidates pulled out.
As a result of Deve’s appointment, several members argued that there was a backlash in middle seats that teal independents then won.
“The late picks cost us seats,” said one prominent moderate. “ Trent had money sitting in his campaign account, which he couldn’t spend because he hadn’t been endorsed.
“Then we had Katherine Deves picked for Warringah, which probably cost us North Sydney and Wentworth.”
He pointed to the 2019 post-election review by former senator Arthur Sinodinos, who recommended that candidates be in the field nine to 12 months before the election.
One of the few rank-and-file selections was held in Bennelong but, again, only a few weeks before the election was called. Simon Kennedy, a former McKinsey partner, beat former staffer Giselle Kapterian, who was well-known locally. Kennedy lost to the former Ryde mayor Jerome Laxale, who ran for Labor and was well known.
However, some of the criticism was more pointed, with several people blaming former immigration minister Alex Hawke directly for the delays.
As the prime minister’s representative on the committee that vetted candidates, Hawke failed to make himself available for meetings for more than nine months, effectively holding up rank-and-file preselections.
When time ran out, Morrison asked the federal executive to intervene and install his choices.
In an email to party members on Tuesday, New South Wales Liberal senator Andrew Bragg and women’s council delegate Jane Buncle (who had initially planned to run for Warringah) proposed several changes to the party’s constitution to prevent a repeat of the stalemate over candidate selection.
“Your rights as members of our great party were taken away before the election,” Bragg and Buncle wrote. “The Liberal Party is Australia’s most successful grassroots movement. It is not a dictatorship, and we will not be successful without your engagement, our members.”
“Your right to have your say and select our candidates is the most important reason to be a member. Yet this precious right was taken away as our constitution was twisted and buckled. We are determined to ensure that this never happens again.”
Hawke, however, has fiercely rejected the suggestion that he and the former prime minister engineered a preselection crisis by using loopholes in the party’s constitution.
He said Morrison had been forced to act after the conservative right faction had tried to “take out” two sitting female members: Sussan Ley in Farrer and Melissa McIntosh in Lindsay.
“This was the genesis of the problem, and he was most exercised about it,” he said.
Morrison stepped in to save one of his few women cabinet ministers and installed Jenny Ware in Hughes and Deves in Warringah. Hawke and Zimmerman were also beneficiaries of the prime ministerial intervention.
Instead, Hawke blamed the factions and state executives.
“The single biggest challenge for the NSW executive is an executive of 27, diverging into three groups, and where 90% votes are required,” he said.
“It is unmanageable,” he said.
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Others agreed that a 27-strong executive was too large and that the requirement to override normal processes with a 90% vote meant that just three members could block any special motion.
But they were angered by Hawke’s argument that the factions were to blame.
“The right and the moderates tried, repeatedly, to put forward a timetable for preselections. On each occasion, the prime minister’s representative failed to make himself available,” one state executive member said.
“The main offender was Hawke. This concern about female candidates is just a pretext,” they said.
There were also criticisms of the state president, Philip Ruddock, and the division staff.
“The division needs a complete overhaul. The division played political games against a sitting prime minister. We need a president who will stand up to the factions and a state executive of professional managers and experienced people,” one senior member said.
Others blamed the factions themselves. “We’ve caught the Labor disease,” said another senior figure, referring to the power of the sections.
Former federal director Brian Loughnane and Senator Jane Hume are conducting a review of the Coalition’s election loss. They should expect many submissions from NSW party members who were appalled at the preselection fiasco that gripped the party.