Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be hit with an unexpected, last-minute bid to have the High Court undo the Liberal Party’s election plans in NSW.
Mr Morrison appeared to secure a rare victory on Tuesday as the NSW Supreme Court declined to rule on a party challenge to his decision to override normal preselection processes and install hand-picked candidates.
But just as many thought that the Prime Minister had overcome the final obstacle to calling the election, it turns out he is not out of the woods yet.
The messy internal party affair still has one leg yet to run.
A senior Liberal source confirmed on Tuesday night that Matthew Camenzuli, the member of the NSW party state executive who first challenged the Prime Minister’s authority, will urgently seek leave to do so again in the High Court.
A NSW court found on Tuesday that the internal matters of political parties were not “justiciable”, or subject to review by the courts.
But Liberals opposed to Mr Morrison’s takeover bid believe this ruling rests on different legal grounds to those invoked by Victorian courts in a similar case involving the ALP.
Mr Camenzuli did not return calls. But it is understood an application is being prepared on the grounds that a ruling clarifying the scope of political parties’ power is needed urgently.
It is not believed that the application, if it is heard by the High Court, will stop the Liberals from officially lodging NSW preselections.
The ruling of the state court will have legal force unless overturned.
The High Court last week rejected an application to hear the case, on that occasion advanced by Mr Morrison’s lawyers.
But much of that rejection was couched on the grounds that doing so would have pre-empted any decision by the NSW court.
The fresh challenge comes as Mr Morrison was forced to deny on Tuesday that his move on preselections was an attempt to impose his will by force – an allegation increasingly being levelled by internal party critics.
“I stood up for the women in my team,” Mr Morrison told the ABC’s 7.30 program on Tuesday night in explaining his preselection takeover.
“There are always people who are disappointed with outcomes that they wonder that they didn’t get and they’ll have an axe to grind.”
Before the case came to court, Mr Morrison had been lobbying hard for months to have the Liberal Party protect three sitting MPs from preselection challenges: ministers Alex Hawke and Sussan Ley and Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman.
For the second time in a week, Mr Morrison was on Tuesday hit with claims of bullying behaviour by a serving female Liberal MP.
Veteran NSW Liberal MP Catherine Cusack wrote that Mr Morrison was a “ruthless” and “self-serving” bully.
Ms Cusack is standing down from the NSW upper house long before her term ends in protest at what she says has been the federal government’s slowness to act in helping flood victims in northern NSW.
The NSW MP was joined last week by another Liberal woman from that state, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a former minister whom Mr Morrison conspicuously made no effort to spare from a preselection fight.
Ms Fierravanti-Wells called Mr Morrison unfit to be Prime Minister and called him the most ruthless person she had encountered during her time in public life.
“I will always stand up for those in my party, and particularly those in my government, where factions try to take them out,” Mr Morrison said.
The court case also has implications for another nine Liberal candidates, many in seats the party is less likely to hold but also in the seat of Hughes currently held by former Liberal MP Craig Kelly.
Liberals opposed to the preselection deal had alleged that Mr Morrison and his factional ally Mr Hawke had been frustrating attempts to hold competitive preselections in seats so that they could stack out the party with figures loyal to their centre-right political grouping.
Mr Morrison has denied the allegation and others alleging bullying conduct in internal Liberal affairs, including the 2007 preselection battle that brought him to the seat of Cook.
“I always stood up to the factions,” he told the ABC.
“I came independently.”
Mr Morrison has been a high-profile member of the NSW Liberal Party faction known as the centre-right.
The breakaway from the party’s existing ideological groupings was known among internal Liberal critics as the “ambition faction” for being light on philosophical conviction.