Part 1, The Man Without a Faction


With the Cook ballot last weekend, the Liberal Party has held what should be the last of this year’s NSW preselections.

It was an interesting batch. A new expression entered the lexicon ‘the firm’ as a new, charmingly monarchical, synonym for John Howard and his private office. And there were some significant occurrences. We saw ‘the firm’ come to the rescue of Pat Farmer and Marise Payne. There was a hilariously unsuccessful attempt to get rid of Bronwyn Bishop in Mackellar. The media started drawing weird factional distinctions, claiming there was a ‘hard’ Right wing in the Liberal Party and a ‘centre’ Right. And in Cook and Mitchell, both safe Liberal seats, the Right wing won big with two of its younger members winning lifetime tenures in the House of Representatives.

The ‘big story,’ of course, was the schism that appears to have opened up between John Howard and the organisational Right as well as the growing power of the Right /incompetence of the Moderates. But as this latter aspect was really more of an old story on its umpteenth repeat, journalists preferred to crank out prose on the subject of the schism instead.

In The Australian, Imre Salusinszky wrote:

The most striking thing about the bitter factional infighting within the NSW division over the past 12 months has been the degree to which the Right is no longer singing from the same hymnal as its former spiritual leader, Howard.

Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald

. . . the result showed Mr Howard’s influence in the NSW branch was waning. ‘The Liberal Party has turned its back on the Prime Minister,’ an angry Moderate said. ‘It reinforces the image that NSW is controlled by the ugly Right,’ another said.

The Right refers pejoratively to Howard and Heffernan as ‘the Firm’ and warns that [their]antics are only bolstering its support at the local level.’There’s no love for Heffernan, there’s no love for the Firm, there’s no love for Jaeschke in all of this,’ one figure said.

Glenn Milne in the Sunday Telegraph, quoting a Right-winger:

I reckon if Alex [Hawke, a right winger and the new candidate for Mitchell] stood against [Howard] for preselection, he’d win.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

It is likely that John Howard allowed himself a wry smile at the news that ‘his’ faction is no longer obeying instructions. To someone who has been around for as long as Howard it can only be entertaining to hear that a group he never controlled has now ceased to be under his control, the more so because he was never even a member of the Right.

Howard entered Parliament at the 1974 election, at a time when branch stacking was still an oddity in the Liberal Party, and factionalism didn’t come within a bull’s roar of the well-resourced, highly disciplined shit fight we see today. The organisation has changed since then of course, but Howard, frankly, has not. He has remained an ideological conservative who keeps the best interests of the Party at heart, and is prepared to work with anyone of talent and goodwill. He hasn’t attended a Right factional meeting in his life.

Says Howard: ‘The Liberal Party is a coalition of liberals and conservatives and one of the most stupid, wasteful, unproductive things the Liberal Party could do would be to have debate to decide whether or not it’s a Liberal Party, a small ‘l’ Liberal Party, or a conservative party.’

Hardly a remark ‘from the same hymnal’ as the Right. The Right mentality, which resounds with concepts of ‘zero-sum-game,’ ‘holy mission’ and ‘crusade,’ wants to hold absolute power in the Liberal Party and systematically wipe out small ‘l’ liberals. It certainly does not regard itself as being in a benign coalition with them.

To quote a member of the Right -wing leadership: ‘People say it [the Liberal Party]is a broad church. My response to that is you’ve got to agree it’s a church. It’s not a brothel, for instance. If people want to legalise drug-injecting rooms, lower the age of consent, go with all these trendy things, this is not the Party that believes in those things. We’re not that broad.’

In this context other aspects of which are Howard’s willingness to put Moderates and small ‘l’ liberals on his front bench, his consistent discouragement of factionalism, and his 1982 attempt to have the leader of the NSW Right expelled from the party the media’s interpretation of recent events requires some refinement. This year’s preselections do not evince a new set of Right-wing objectives that are inconsistent with those of John Howard. The Right and Howard never had a common-point view. Rather it’s a matter of the Right’s power having grown to the point, and the end of the Howard era now being sufficiently close, that the Right can afford to ignore the Prime Minister and do whatever the hell it wants.

Since 1996, the NSW Right-wingers have found it convenient to portray themselves as foot-soldiers of the Federal leadership. This was the basis of their appeal to unaligned members of the Party, and fit comfortably with their allegation that the Moderates’ role was an entirely negative one: undermining and criticising. But over the years unaligned members have largely disappeared either because they quit their memberships or were subsumed by the factions and the Right has grown from minor fringe group into a political behemoth that dominates just about every forum of the Liberal Party. A behemoth doesn’t need camouflage. If the Right has decided to abandon its Howard loyalist mantra it’s because it now feels strong enough to stake out an independent position

It is apparently also prepared to put forward highly-controversial candidates for preselection. In Cook, possibly the most white-bread electorate in Sydney, their candidate was Michael Towke (until recently Taouk) a chap who used to be a member of the ALP, doesn’t have a single relevant qualification, and looks like the youthful Osama bin Laden without a beard.

In Mitchell they put forward Alex Hawke, whose name is practically a by-word for factional dodginess (politically skilled though he certainly is). And the person they proposed to run for the Senate against Moderate, Marise Payne, was Scot MacDonald: a no-talent and undistinguished veteran of a thousand shabby deals; not least an episode a few years ago where he tried to form five new branches on a single night by holding five formation meetings in his living room.

The Right reasoned that it could get all three of these candidates up, so greatly had its numbers grown. And it would appear that this was no miscalculation. Not only have the Right’s numbers in
the party grown exponentially since the last round of federal preselections but, as we will see, from beginning to end the faction showed a skill for organising and machine politics that far exceeded anything on the Left.

Click here for Part 2: Howard and Heffernan vs the NSW Right.

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