The Liberal Party has strongly rejected Tony Abbott’s claim it is “haemorrhaging members”, as tensions rise over the former prime minister’s push to change the way candidates are pre-selected.
Mr Abbott made the claim while arguing the NSW division needed to empower its members and give them a vote in pre-selections.
“We’re haemorrhaging members in every state but it’s a particular problem in NSW because we’ve got this dreadful situation where we have got factionalists and lobbyists who seem to be controlling the party,” Mr Abbott told Sydney’s 2GB radio.
“The best way to liberate our party from factional control, the best way to liberate our party from the lobbyists, is to give every single member a vote.”
Nationally, the Liberal Party’s membership has plateaued at around 50,000 and the ABC has been told the NSW division membership stands at around 11,000.
While that is substantially less than it once was, sources say the numbers have remained steady over the past five years or so and have even had a bump or “modest increase” in recent times.
“Mr Abbott’s claim should be treated with a grain of salt,” a senior source said.
The battle over Mr Abbott’s “one member, one vote”, or plebiscite pre-selections push, will come to a head later this month at a specially convened conference to debate the future of the NSW division.
Currently, candidates in NSW are pre-selected by a mix of party officials and branch representatives.
Mr Abbott’s hard-right faction argues a plebiscite model will empower members and neuter the power of factional warlords.
But the moderates — to which Malcolm Turnbull is aligned — are more wary, fearing the change could see NSW return to its “bad old days” of branch-stacking, as has been the case in Victoria.
They also argue Victoria, which introduced a plebiscite model in 2008, has not seen a dramatic increase in its membership.
One source said a plebiscite was not the “panacea” to solving the party’s membership problem.
But this issue is about more than party democratisation. It is a battle for control between a divided right and a dominant left, and it is being pitched, by some, as a proxy war between Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull.
That is despite the fact Mr Turnbull is broadly supportive of the plebiscite idea.
Government frontbencher Angus Taylor, who supports Mr Abbott’s push, told Liberal Party members on the weekend the change must not be seen through the prism of “Turnbull versus Abbott, or Abbott versus Turnbull”.
Liberal MPs are reasonably optimistic a compromise will be reached this month.
But those on the moderate side argue there must be safeguards against branch-stacking, including limiting voting rights to those who have been members for a certain amount of time, and ensuring the state executive retains some say over the process.