The NSW Liberal Party has lost its 3rd safest seat. In a whopping 25% swing, independent mayor Alex McTaggart has become the first independent state member for the seat of Pittwater. He is the second independent to take a seat in what should be the Liberal heartland of the affluent northern beaches.
Who is to blame? No doubt many Liberals will blame former member and Opposition Leader John Brogden for failing to endorse preselected candidate Paul Nicolaou. But given the size of the swing, one wonders whether any endorsement from Mr Brogden would have made any difference.
Others will blame current Opposition Leader and Member for Vaucluse Peter Debnam. However, it is hard to know what else Mr Debnam could have done to avoid defeat. He found a candidate in Paul Nicolaoui who kept all factions happy and was a likeable and inoffensive character.
In reality, the fault lies with those forces responsible for Brogden’s demise in the first place. The New Right of the party must take the blame, just as the Hard Left had to take the blame for Kerry Chikarovski’s electoral loss at the State Election in 1999.
For years, the small “l” liberal faction known as “the Group” had a policy of “winner takes all” in its approach to the party organisation. It often seemed like the Liberal Left were more focussed on attacking internal party enemies than defeating the ALP.
Eventually, as the Group made more and more internal party enemies, its own MP’s were losing their seats. Former Member for Miranda, Ron Phillips, was titular head of the Group. His factional leadership enabled him to win many internal party battles. He even orchestrated the toppling of his local Federal MP, the popular Member for Cook Stephen Mutch.
Mr Phillips’ focus on internal battles meant that when it came time to do battle with the real enemy – the ALP machine – he was too exhausted to fight. Few wept over his electoral demise, with plenty of non-Group Liberals dancing on his political grave.
The mistakes formerly made by Phillips & Co are now being repeated by the new powerbrokers in the Party, virtually all of whom come from the hard right. Led and organised out of the offices of a Big “C” Conservative Upper House Member, this faction has taken the same “winner takes all” approach to its factional battles.
This in itself should not surprise anyone within the Party. What will surprise outsiders is the fact that so many persons in the New Right are former members of the Group.
The New Right’s major source of strength is the NSW Young Liberal Movement. This was also the main power base of the Group during its days in power. Many of those same young Groupers are current factional warriors in the New Right, holding positions on the NSW Young Liberal executive and the State Executive of the Party.
Many accuse current national Young Liberal President Alex Hawke of belonging to the New Right. That maybe the case today. But Mr Hawke’s first political act of treachery was when he was more closely aligned to the Group. On that occasion, he organised a takeover of his own Young Liberal branch in Parramatta to unseat his branch president.
Hawke now has strong personal reasons for undermining Brogden. He has attacked the moderate Liberal social agenda, in return for which Mr Brogden accused him of behaving like someone auditioning for the role of party clown.
The Young Liberals have traditionally operated a “flying squad” of young activists to assist in elections and by-elections. Yet in the last State Election, the flying squads were nowhere to be seen. It was common knowledge that the New Right Young Liberals did not want a “lefty” to be the next State Premier.
The New Right party heavies did have access to a more local candidate in the internal Liberal pre-selection process. Rob Stokes is an environmental lawyer close to John Brogden and with strong ties to the local area. But instead of choosing the logical choice, the Hard-Right put factional possibilities before electoral reality.
Ironically, despite the strong religious overtones of the Hard-Right, the Christian Democrats refused to share preferences with the Liberals.
The extreme factionalism within the Young Liberals has infected the Party and has made it near-impossible for the Party to maintain a hold on many of its own seats, let alone win seats from the ALP and independents. With the retirement of Bob Carr and with the mistakes of his government costing more than a block of flats in Lane Cove, the Liberals should have been able to capitalise on ALP mistakes.
Of course, the campaign was sullied by other mistakes and problems. Parachuting an outsider into an electorate with this village mentality proved disastrous. For all his virtues and hard work, Paul Nicolaou was the wrong candidate. The Liberal Party had access to a local candidate in lawyer Rob Stokes.
Indeed, as newly elected independent candidate and Pittwater Mayor Alex McTaggart admitted to journalists, he probably would not have bothered running if the Liberal Party had preselected Mr Stokes.
Hawke and his boss have become the new NSW Liberal powerbroker. But his takeover as Young Liberal president came at a price. Before Hawke could battle the Liberal Left, he had to purge the non-Group faction of its small-“c” conservatives.
Hawke’s role in that purge forms an important background to the current political dramas within the Party. He moved swiftly to drive a number of former small “c” conservatives out of the Party. Among these were at least 4 former federal liberal candidates, an editor of a conservative youth magazine, a number of local councillors and Liberal Student activists. And his own former branch president who first recruited him to the party.
The small “c” conservatives had the advantage of years of grassroots experience campaigning across metropolitan Sydney. They also tended to be far more amenable to pragmatism and compromise than the New Right.
Most importantly, the small “c” conservatives were not so obsessed with the typical ideological flaws of the New Right – support from extreme fringe groups, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and opposition to anything resembling multiculturalism. The small “c” conservatives were the sensitive and sensible face of the conservative wing of the Party. The absence of the small “c” conservatives has therefore made the ideological gulf between the factions.
The ALP has been able to organise its factions and manage its internal bickering. Unless the NSW Liberals can do the same, they can look forward to many more terms in opposition and losing many more of its safe seats to independents.
(The author is a Sydney lawyer and former Liberal Candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 Federal Election. He is a former member of the NSW Young Liberals and of the NSW State Council, sitting on over 5 pre-selections including the Pittwater pre-selection in 1998.)
© Irfan Yusuf 2005