The trial of the Wentworth Seven

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The Liberal Party’s carefully planned revenge against supporters of Peter King has widened in a punitive action against members, former members of the party and even non-members of the party.

Peter King is the former federal Liberal MP for Sydney’s Wentworth electorate who stood as an independent in last October’s federal election. Earlier in the year King lost party endorsement for the politically safe seat to multimillionaire and former Australian Republican Movement supremo, Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull’s endorsement followed an extraordinary new Liberal member enrolment exercise which saw membership of the Liberal Party in Wentworth rise from several hundred to more than 5 000. The size and speed of the enrolment exercise has never been duplicated by any political party in any federal election since Federation. Its propriety has never been investigated by the Liberal Party executive despite some members of the executive having had their attention drawn to the extraordinary flow of applications for membership between August 2003 and February last year. King supporters were told concerns raised by them about the membership drive would be investigated.

Turnbull won the October election after preferences and the Liberal Party in Wentworth saw its primary vote slip almost 10 per cent. King gathered most of this slippage and theoretically could have won the election if the local Greens had steered their preferences to King as recommended by Greens leader, Senator Bob Brown.

Since Federation, Wentworth, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, has always been held by conservative candidates. Turnbull’s poor showing in the October election has raised the possibility that at the next federal election the seat could be won by an independent conservative. Whether such an independent will emerge is moot. What is not moot is that Turnbull will need to sharpen his performance in the early years of his parliamentary career to head off a possible well-planned challenge to his re-endorsement.

At a time when the Liberal Party should be binding its wounds and salving bruised egos as a result of the Turnbull-King stoush, the NSW state executive has embarked on an investigation against fifteen King supporters which some supporters have described as an inquisition. This tactic may backfire on the executive because many who have faced the inquisition (myself included) believe it lacks due process and breaches the party’s constitution. The party’s action followed the banning of King, his wife and a former part-time staffer (all ex-party members) immediately after the 9 October election from rejoining the party for a period respectively of ten and five years.

Almost three weeks after the October election, the party’s then-state director, Scott Morrison, wrote to the fifteen King supporters saying ‘the executive has resolved to consider an expulsion motion in relation to your membership of the Division’ and invited them to attend a meeting of the executive so that they could ‘address this meeting’. The following month, Morrison, who by then had been appointed chief executive of the Federal Government’s tourism promotion organisation, again wrote saying that the date of the expulsion hearing would be 10 December. He wrote that responding members ‘will be able to speak to State Executive for no more than ten minutes, … will be required to answer questions from State Executive for no more than ten minutes, … will have their speaking order drawn by lot just prior to the commencement of the meeting. Members must appear before the State executive in person, and may not be represented by another person or person on their behalf.’

Caught in the Liberal Party dragnet were King’s son who was doing the Higher School Certificate at the time of the election, a student who was doing work experience in King’s electorate office to improve his candidature for a university course, another King staffer (myself), King friends and King supporters. Many of the latter had been long-term Liberal Party members.

The choice of the fifteen summoned was puzzling. Before and on election day, about 700 people had directly or indirectly assisted King’s campaign. At some Wentworth polling booths, locally based King supporters even outnumbered Turnbull booth workers. It was initially suggested in NSW Liberal circles that once the fifteen were dealt with, then others identified for helping the King campaign will be summoned to a hearing to consider their expulsion from the party.

Of the fifteen summoned, seven turned up for the Friday 10 December hearing at the NSW Liberal Party headquarters. They have since become known as the Wentworth Seven. The hearing got under way more than two hours later than planned. This led members of the Wentworth Seven waiting in a separate room to speculate the delay was because of debate among the executive about the wisdom of their action. Eventually Morrison, with Liberal state president Chris McDiven, informed the Wentworth Seven that the expulsion hearing would proceed but the process of the investigation had been changed. We were told that we would now have to face a possible ten minute period of supplementary questioning. Members of the Wentworth Seven questioned this change and bluntly told Morrison and McDiven they believed that their actions were improper because, among other things, they were denied legal representation. Morrison and McDiven did not agree to these objections and a short time later, members of the Wentworth Seven were individually called before the executive.

The hearing process ran from just before 9 p.m. to 11.30 p.m. and, from start to finish, went awry. Some of us summoned argued the conditions under which we were appearing were onerous, improper and represented a historical mistake by the executive. Myself and others pointed out that at the time of the election, some of us were non-financial party members and so no longer members of the party. Other members of the Seven who had been given access to the evidence on them collected by Liberal Party operatives argued the evidence against them was inconsequential. In one case, a strong argument was made by a member of the Wentworth Seven that a photograph used to mount a charge against him appeared to represent two different scenes taken more than several weeks apart.

Each individual member of the Seven was escorted from the Liberal Party building immediately after their hearing. When the expulsion hearings ended before midnight, the executive must have turned to the problem of what to do next. At this stage, it appears a split emerged within the Liberal executive during the following two hours because from 1.30 a.m. on Saturday, the Liberal Party’s Bede Fennell began ringing each of us saying that the expulsion process had been suspended pending the collection of more information.

Listening later that day to the members of the Wentworth Seven recount their experiences before the hearing, I was surprised how powerful their reported arguments were and wondered whether their arguments had made some members of the Liberal executive uneasy.

Six days later, Fennell (now the NSW Liberal’s acting state director because Morrison had departed) wrote confirming that the expulsion motion had been suspended ‘until further information is sought in relation to these matters and all related activity with a deadline for receipt of such information from members of 14th of March 2004’, (sic). Since then, not one of us has officially heard from the Liberal Party. Nor have we received the promised transcripts of our presentation and questionings. Meanwhile stories are surfacing of Liberal Party information gathering.

Regardless of what action is taken against the Wentworth Seven, the Liberal Party in Wentworth is in a mess. The number who have not renewed their membership is up to 80 per cent in some branches. Indeed, some major party branches have not met for almost twelve months.

The expulsion hearings of the Wentworth Seven has understandably upset King voters. Should the Liberal executive not resolve the situation, it can expect others will approach the executive and dob themselves in as being King supporters. If that happens, the executive will be faced with a conundrum that could further fuel the split within the Liberal Party in Wentworth and lead to dissenters at the next federal election backing a strong independent candidate against Turnbull.

Such a threat is realistic. It could succeed if the future ALP candidate for Wentworth was instructed to run dead against Turnbull or if the ALP decided not to endorse a Wentworth candidate. There are many strong players in the ALP like many Liberals and ex-Liberals in Wentworth, who are ready to challenge Turnbull.

The expulsion exercise that the NSW Liberal Party executive has embarked on is potentially damaging to the Party. Before the executive met for the first-round hearing a carefully researched paper was presented to it prepared by a well-informed member of the Wentworth Seven who was formerly a senior lecturer in politics. He argued that the executive’s proposed actions were wrong in principle and wrong constitutionally. The paper pointed to what past interstate and NSW Liberal executives had done to party members who had supported independent Liberal candidates in the past. The paper concluded that in most cases little in the way of punitive action had been taken by past party executives.

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