Branches and Beefs: is anybody up for a job in the Liberal Party?

by Steph Preston | Oct 7, 2023 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Beset by “schoolyard bickering in the Murdoch media” the Liberal Party is in disarray, out of office in every state and territory save Tasmania. Steph Preston reports as the NSW Liberal Party fails to find a suitable administrator to push through much needed reforms identified after the Federal election loss. Does nobody want the job? 

Over the last few years, tensions within the Liberal Party have been spilling out into the media and sometimes into the streets. From the knifing of Malcolm Turnbull all the way down to petty council skirmishes, it seems everywhere you look across the country you can find a branch with a beef.

At the last federal election, the infighting ramped up when preselections for federal seats were stalled until the last minute, ensuring that MPs like Trent Zimmerman, Sussan Ley, and Alex Hawke would remain in parliament. Other sitting members like Melissa McIntosh got the opposite treatment and were almost forcibly removed. Captain’s picks were also made in seats the Liberals don’t hold, most infamously the Sydney seat of Warringah.

throng of factional whingers tell us how they see it, on the condition of anonymity in the Murdoch press

The suspension of a democratic contest proved to be a popular tactic when another wave of interventions were made at the last NSW state election. It is important to note that none of this would be news without the help of the Murdoch media gleefully publishing the personal gripes of high-ranking Liberals over hundreds of articles. What could be more important?

Last week a story that flew under the radar in The Australian claimed the NSW Liberal Party were about to select Luke Dixon as their next State Director. Dixon would replace Chris Stone, whose dedication to the cause is shown by the fact that his LinkedIn profile is authorised by the Liberal Party (on behalf of himself).

Chris Stone LinkedIn

Chris Stone on LinkedIn

But all was not well for Mr Dixon as a senior source warned “getting state executive approval is a long, hard road”. One day later, Luke Dixon was out of the race. A long, hard road indeed.

Considering Mr Dixon spent much of his career in Australia’s least trusted industry, you would think he would be the perfect man (and it is always a man) for the job! But it was not to be.

Liberal Party course work: Factions 101

Another senior Lib told The Australian that if appointed, Mr Dixon, a Victorian, would need a course in “factions 101”, and the ex-Property Council advisor was “hard to pin down factionally.” That final remark speaks volumes considering the parlous state of the NSW Liberal Party.

No less than five party insiders and likely many more spoke to the Australian on the condition of anonymity. MWM understands that there is a Liberal Party rule about not speaking to the media, but that it only applies to candidates. The rule is often appropriated by elected members and backroom dealers to cover for their cowardice.

The swift change of heart over the appointment of the state director illustrates the collapse of any form of internal governance and complete inability to manage the myriad of issues recommended in the Loughnane/Hume report on the 2022 Federal election loss.

Liberal Party brawl

Liberal Party brawl

Put simply, they botched the appointment of the very person who would be tasked with delivering those much-needed reforms in time for the next election. Not that the Liberals are any stranger to botching; to use Bob Hawke’s famous quote, “If you can’t manage your party, how can you manage the country?”

So, what happened exactly?

The Federal Election review

The Review of the 2022 Federal Election set out by Brian Loughnane and Jane Hume gently suggests that Scott Morrison, aided by his trusted wing man Alex Hawke, essentially did everything within their power to lose the election.

Of course, not all Liberals see it that way. In December last year, the NSW state president told Sky News that blaming factionalism was “not what the [review] says”.

The review’s reprimand is gentle enough that we are all invited to read the tea leaves, including the throng of factional whingers lining up to tell us how they see it, on the condition of anonymity in the Murdoch press. When Sussan Ley was spared competition yet again in July of this year, News.com.au reported one such whinger threatened to put 2GB’s Ray Hadley “on speed dial.”

At risk of misinterpreting the report, here are some issues we identified:

  • Factional warfare that resulted in not having candidates selected for some seats days after the election was announced.
  • The consequent appointment of candidates picked by Morrison himself, locking local branch members out of having any say whatsoever. (This after finally changing party’s Constitution to embrace a ‘one member one vote’ system that tore the party in half for years despite never being honestly implemented).
  • Failure to attract women to stand for winnable seats.
  • Poor treatment of those who put their hands up to contest a preselection by factional operatives.
  • Poor vetting of candidates prior to preselection.

On this last point, the report stated:

Vetting a political candidate is more complex than vetting an individual for a role in the private sector, remembering that a political candidate is subjected to the highest level of scrutiny. A number of states used external third-party vetting companies to vet potential candidates. A number of times, matters were overlooked because those undertaking the work lacked the necessary political experience to properly identify potentially sensitive issues.

“No Division can delegate their responsibility regarding the vetting of candidates, and while outsourcing can be a useful tool in conducting checks, it should be a complementary rather than a replacement service.”

Botched executive search

The Liberal Party engaged management consulting firm Korn Ferry to assist with an Executive Search to fill the role of State Director, an exercise that would have come at a cost of thousands of dollars, only for the list of names the firm put forward to be rejected by the selection panel. This is not the first time the Libs have engaged Korn Ferry, nor the first time the party has thrown out the advice they paid for.

a waterfall of Facebook posts critical of Tony Abbott calling him a ‘miserable ghost’

A short list for the position was developed by the selection panel, who clearly thought they knew better, and Mr Dixon was set to take up the role.

But the day after The Australian reported Mr Dixon’s likely appointment, some journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald reminded us all that Luke Dixon had form.

In 2008,The Age reported that Mr Dixon had quit the Liberal Party after admitting to writing emails critical of then leader Ted Baillieu.

Then came a waterfall of Facebook posts critical of Tony Abbott calling him a ‘miserable ghost’, amongst other things. MWM thinks the contribution of that particular phrase to the discourse alone should have won him the role, but upon reading about these historical outbursts of which they should have been well aware, the Right Wing faction became upset and threatened Dixon’s nomination.

Within 24 hours, Dixon had withdrawn his application and Richard Shields, a selection that the panel – comprising Jason Fallinski, Mark Coure and Marise Payne – didn’t want, pulled off a Stephen Bradbury and was appointed.

In 2014, Mr Shields was called to give evidence in a public hearing  as part of Operation Credo & Spicer, an investigation into the NSW Liberals funding of their 2011 state campaign.

Mr Dixon’s crime of criticism of Mr Abbott clearly carried more weight in the eyes of the selection panel.

Democracy Liberal Party style

Consulting our own tea leaves, MWM opines that free speech within the Liberal Party has all but been extinguished, and the Liberal Party is in the business of democracy whilst somehow having very little to do with it.

Now, let’s look at the recommendations of the Loughnane/Hume report.

In order for the organisation to be ‘fit for purpose’ by the next federal election the Liberals need to act quickly, stop allowing factional warlords to grind down the pace of candidate selection, to attract more senior women to the Party and, of course, improve their vetting systems.

What happened in NSW last week was the opposite.

Six months after Chris Stone resigned, they were still without a replacement and there were no female candidates to be seen.

The party website offers some reassurance on this front, reporting that the new state director has said, “I look forward to… identifying future political candidates that best represent our diverse community.”

It goes on to say that Peter Duttton welcomed his appointment.

Presumably, so does Sussan Ley.

The position of State Director is the person that administers the preselection process. It is ironic that factions threatening to reject the panel’s recommendations came about as a result of an extremely poor vetting process.

If the NSW Liberals can’t even manage to find the right person to run their affairs, failing the key recommendations set out by Loughnane and Hume only a matter of months ago, the chances of them being ‘fit for purpose’ by the next federal election are looking pretty slim indeed.

And the rest of us will have to suffer thousands of news stories covering this schoolyard bickering, generously served up in the Murdoch media.

Young Nats denied a voice on The Voice: try and understand it, dare you

Steph Preston is a former political adviser.

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