The view from Billinudgel

Decisions, decisions
The NSW Liberal preselections are causing havoc within the party

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The Liberals, we know, love democracy.

As apostles of free enterprise they embrace freedom, transparency, competition; they abhor the dead hand of socialism and central control, which they ascribe to their Labor opponents.

They are all about individual freedom and responsibility – at least they are until it is really important. And of course there is nothing more important than securing their own preselections.  

So at the first sign of a threat, the Libs run pleading and whimpering for assistance to authority: head office, the prime minister – anyone who can keep their precious entitlements intact. 

The imbroglio in New South Wales has been attributed to ancient factional battles – the ones Malcolm Turnbull claims do not exist – between conservatives and moderates. The Tasmanian factional warlord Eric Abetz certainly sees it that way: for him it is a straightforward battle between right and wrong, sin and virtue: there are the conservatives (good) and the moderates (evil) and it is as simple as that.

It isn’t, of course; there are issues of personal ambition, changes to electoral boundaries and (dare one say it) competence and ability. And there is also the question of renewal – some of the incumbents are regarded as has-beens, never-will-bes, or (in the case of Bronwyn Bishop) both.

Bishop says she must continue her abysmal career to protect the country from terrorism – by which, presumably, she means another candidate in her cushy seat of Mackellar. There is a possible challenge at the election from an independent Dick Smith, prompting the obvious cracks about who gets the best helicopter, but the real issue is the Liberal nomination – Bishop, a factional clone of hers, or someone else?

Phillip Ruddock is another obviously over the hill – his only claim to fame these days is his political longevity and the title of Father (or perhaps Great-Grandfather) of the House. Bill Heffernan is apparently prepared to retire, but only if he can choose his successor. Craig Kelly is not so old – we think; the melancholy truth is that almost no-one has heard of him, and equally almost no-one would miss him. 

Angus Taylor is more interesting; a hardline conservative, but one destined, we are told, for greater things. And then there is Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. The right-wing senator used to be a prototype reactionary, ranting about the ABC and halal food, but in recent times has done useful work in the multicultural community, especially among Muslims.

Interestingly, the latter two are the only ones Turnbull has personally endorsed; the others, like all sitting Liberals, have received a pro-forma letter saying that they have his support – well, it could hardly be otherwise.

The irony is that Turnbull himself knocked off a sitting member; in 2004 he performed what was admiringly described as the mother of all branch-stacks to roll the popular Peter King in Wentworth. In the circumstances, he must have been tempted to tell the whingers to just suck it up – be a bit more agile and nimble.

But that might not be tactful, especially where the septuagenarians are concerned. And right now the prime minister wants everyone onside – everyone except Tony Abbott, at least. And there is nothing to be done about him.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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