The Liberal Party has declined to back a personal appeal from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to save three sitting MPs from preselection challenges, as internal party tensions escalate.
Mr Morrison and members of his centre-right faction have been seeking to have the executive of the New South Wales Liberal Party intervene to lock in federal preselections for the sitting MPs and stop them facing internal challenges.
In the process, he has inflamed tensions between the party’s factions.
The Prime Minister has so far failed to secure the support required from the party in his home state to implement a plan to save the MPs.
Those currently exposed to internal challenges are Trent Zimmerman and Ministers Sussan Ley and Alex Hawke.
Mr Morrison fell short again last week, this time when seeking the support of the party’s federal bosses, to intervene into the NSW wing and protect the MPs.
“He spoke very strongly in favour of intervention,” a senior Liberal said.
“He doesn’t want to have his ministers or MPs challenged. That’s understandable. But this is life in the Liberal Party.”
The pushback against the Prime Minister’s plan came from party directors who said that adequate notice had not been given for federal intervention to be fairly applied.
The NSW branch was instead given another 10 days to seek a resolution.
“Everyone hopes that NSW can come to an agreement,” a Liberal said.
“But we’ll see about that.”
Whatever way the preselections are resolved, further factional Liberal ructions will almost certainly result.
At issue is a complicated deal designed to ensure sitting MPs are protected but also notionally dividing preselections between the party’s main three factional groups.
Among the other preselection deals up in the air is a plan to install moderate factional player Alex Dore into the seat of Hughes, currently occupied by the vaccination sceptic and former Liberal Craig Kelly.
The plan has brokered anger especially within the NSW party’s conservative wing, much of which advocates that the MPs should face a standard competitive preselection, a process involving a nomination review committee and a vote by members.
One NSW Liberal source said that the NSW conservatives are spring loaded to take legal action to stop any federal intervention.
Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells laid the blame at the foot of one of the MPs at the heart of the deal, Immigration Minister and factional boss Alex Hawke.
The Senator alleged that Mr Hawke has deliberately delayed the usual preselection processes to create a sense of crisis and secure intervention on favourable terms for his and Mr Morrison’s faction.
“I am advised [the problem] is primarily the failure/refusal of the Prime Minister’s representative on state executive, Mr Alex Hawke, to carry out his party functions,” she wrote in a leaked email to party members last week.
“They create the dysfunction, and then use it as an excuse to get what they want.
We need to stand up to those seeking to pull strings in the background.”
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
Mr Morrison is, like his Immigration Minister, a stalwart of the party’s NSW centre-right faction.
He was formerly the party’s NSW boss before standing for Parliament.
The depth of opposition within the NSW party’s conservative wing does not bode well for an easy peace.
Many Liberals now suggest time will force the hand of the NSW Liberals to reach a deal simply because, with an election only months away, the time to stage competitive preselections has run out.
Such a justification could only further enrage the Liberal conservatives and lend credence to their claims that delays have been created.
Another call for urgency, from NSW Liberal president Philip Ruddock, on the grounds that the party directors’ terms would soon expire, was also not heeded.
The federal executive instead resolved to extend directors’ terms.
The federal executive convenes again on March 4.