Part 2, Howard and Heffernan vs the NSW Right


In the first instalment of this three-part series of the Liberal Party’s controversial 2007 Federal preselections, John Hyde Page argued that the division between John Howard and the Party’s far Right did not show that the Prime Minister had lost control of his own faction Howard had never even been a member of Right, preferring to operate outside the factional system.

In this second instalment, Hyde Page shows how Howard and NSW Senator Bill Heffernan pulled out all stops to control the outcome of the Mitchell and Cook preselections and how they were ultimately outplayed.

The Right’s decision to run Scot MacDonald, Alex Hawke and Michael Towke as its preselection candidates in the NSW seats of Mitchell and Cook reflected the expansionist faction’s need for loyal placemen, as well as the sheer success of the Right over the last three years which has put a far greater range of glittering prizes within its reach than it has people who are suitable to receive them.

Bitter experience had taught them how frustrating it is to preselect somebody for Parliament who then displays little gratitude and a basic unwillingness to assist future Right-wing operations. Malcolm Turnbull, in particular, stands out as a beneficiary of Right-wing sponsorship who has since let all of far-Right powerbroker David Clarke‘s phone calls go to message bank.

The Right also learned from watching the Moderates that if you fail to reward the people who stack branches for you, they very rapidly lose interest in it. The Right is very keen for people to stack branches. No matter how great its power, there is a perpetual quest for more. It was this consideration that produced Hawke, MacDonald and Towke. Power.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

Power is such an end in itself for the Right because its leaders had to spend so many years toiling away in the Party before they got their hands on any. (David Clarke, for example, was an active Liberal as far back as the 1960s and remained a nonentity well into the 1990s.)

But while this gives the Right a certain amount of consistency, it also puts them in an odd situation where the crusaders never get to Jerusalem. They stay on the field of battle instead, endlessly stabbing and re-stabbing the Saracen corpses by which I mean Moderate corpses to make sure they’re dead. The day never comes when they do something to realise their conservative agenda, by preselecting an intelligent and accomplished conservative with the capacity for implementation. Indeed, of the three Right candidates who emerged this year, only one Hawke has any suitability for Parliament at all.

Which is why Howard entered the picture. Unsurprisingly, he was rather keen to have people in Parliament whose talents were not confined to branch stacking. This fundamental divergence of priorities framed the year’s preselections.

It became obvious in April that John Howard was prepared to actively assist the Moderates. At a meeting of the NSW Executive that month, Bill Heffernan Howard’s representative on Executive proposed that all incumbent NSW Senators should be re-endorsed without preselection, effectively shielding Payne from a Scot MacDonald challenge. This was a pretty unambiguous signal.

Heffernan’s proposal failed, because the NSW Executive is overwhelmingly Right “controlled. But after nominations for the Senate selection had closed, Heffernan then used the Party’s Nomination Review Committee (NRC) to force MacDonald out of the field of candidates.

This was a genuine outrage, and a gross misuse of the Liberal Party’s machinery. NRC is a committee of four people which has the quintessentially administrative task of checking candidate CVs for accuracy. Its brief is not to make political decisions on behalf of the Party, and the only candidates it is meant to prevent from nominating are convicted felons and members of the ALP. MacDonald was entitled to be furious that NRC wouldn’t let him nominate whatever transgressions he may or may not have perpetrated, they fell far short of the necessary standard.

If Howard personally approved the veto (which seems likely, because if he hadn’t nobody else on NRC would have supported Heffernan), it indicates a remarkable determination to save Payne. The PM, who is a traditionalist when it comes to internal Party affairs, would have been aware that blocking MacDonald at NRC was essentially an abuse of process, and he would have enjoyed doing it about as much as joining a trade union.

On the other hand, the power a Liberal Prime Minister has over his own Party, while undoubtedly very great, has real limitations. It largely depends upon the deference of the Party’s State Executive and if the Right-controlled Executive was no longer mindful of Howard’s opinions, there were only a certain number of ways in which he could stop MacDonald. The most obvious of these was NRC even if it did involve an abuse of process.

Right-wing complaints about the veto still stink of hypocrisy though, because the Right’s own rise to power has involved the perversion and abuse of just about every rule in the Party book. Indeed, back in 2004 they were the ones who first started using the NRC for cynical political reasons. If they entered this round of preselections without first undertaking preparatory work to ensure their candidates would get through NRC, then in a very real sense they were authors of their own misfortune.

That said, Marise Payne would be well-advised to treat the episode as food for thought. This is the second time Howard has saved Payne’s career, despite the fact that she heaps shit on him whenever the opportunity arises.

Payne’s own record in the Party has been one of consistently supporting incompetence over talent whenever incompetence takes the form of a friend or factional colleague. Accordingly, she might reflect on how it felt to be confronted with certain defeat at the hands of Scot MacDonald a mediocrity backed by people who operate on the same principle she does until Howard intervened. Blind Freddy can see that Marise Payne makes a better senator than Scot MacDonald ever would, but this doesn’t make her partisanship, or that of the Moderate faction, any more defensible than that of the Right.

If the Right had itself to blame for getting fucked over by the NRC, in the aftermath its institutional strengths came to the fore. Not that the unexpected new obstacle was especially daunting. All they had to do was get their candidates for Cook and Mitchell past the Heffernan-controlled review process, and they would be back in a familiar place where their only opponent was the Moderates. And Polish cavalrymen had greater likelihood of success as they galloped towards Hitler’s Panzers than the Liberal Party’s Moderate faction does these days when it attempts to ‘fight’ the Right.

After the MacDonald veto, newspaper articles started appearing in relation to Mitchell as well as Cook, which referred to the emergence of a ‘hard Right’ and a ‘centre Right.’ A second Right-winger nominated for Mitchell, in addition to Alex Hawke, creating doubt about who the faction was really backing. A stream of mixed messages persua
ded journalists that Mitchell was genuinely an open race, and the papers reported that there was only a ‘handful of votes’ in it either way: a pronouncement that appears quite humorous in light of the preselection’s ultimate result.

It was all a façade of course; a ploy to ensure that there would be no repeat of the NRC debacle. The second Right-winger who nominated for Mitchell was Nick Campbell; probably the most presentable, squeaky clean operative the Right possesses, and a certainty to survive the NRC process if Alex Hawke did not.

Moreover, the mere nomination of Campbell made it inherently more likely that Hawke would get through NRC. It raised the possibility that Campbell rather than Hawke was the Right’s candidate, and the further possibility that the Right was split, in which case Hawke was unlikely to win. Journalistic silliness about how Mitchell would come down to a ‘handful of votes’ originated in the erroneous belief that the Right-wing vote would divide between two candidates. And Heffernan was unlikely to block Hawke at NRC if Hawke had no hope of success in the preselection ballot itself.

The result? Both Campbell and Hawke made it through the NRC. Campbell then withdrew his nomination, and suddenly the Right was again looking very united, and very behemoth-like particularly in comparison to the incumbent, Alan Cadman, and even more so in comparison to the embarrassing campaign the Moderates threw together in support of their eleventh-hour candidate, David Elliott.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the Moderates. They just have no regard for their own survival. Only three years ago, their numbers in Mitchell were strong enough that a Moderate candidate came within three votes of toppling Alan Cadman and winning the seat. Cadman was an elderly backbencher. It was bleedingly obvious that he would be going down in 2007. So why on earth didn’t the Moderates do any branch work in the period 2004-2007, when it was manifestly clear that Mitchell would be up for grabs?

The local State MP was a Moderate; they had plenty of contacts and resources on the ground; there was an open field. Why did they do nothing? Force of habit?

A fair point is that after the last Federal election there was an electoral redistribution which saw a number of Moderate branches re-assigned from Mitchell to other seats but this rings pretty hollow as an excuse. A faction only needs a single branch to be competitive in a preselection, it’s just a matter of stacking membership of that branch into the stratosphere.

The Moderates held the Glenhaven branch, which is in Mitchell, so they were in a position to do this but they did not. Accordingly, the Right fronted up to the preselection with a breath-taking majority because the Moderates had not offset the hundreds of stacks that the Right pumped into the seat in anticipation of a ballot.

When he saw how the numbers were looking, Cadman withdrew, not wanting to be humiliated. Then, on the day of the preselection, when it became clear just how large Alex Hawke’s margin of victory was going to be, those preselectors who were cognisant of John Howard’s interest and responsive to it (such as Heffernan and State Party President, Geoff Selig) decided it was better to keep their powder dry and vote for Hawke. Far better to do that than aggravate a person who would shortly have a vote in the Liberal Party-room.

So Hawke beat Elliott by a whopping margin of 81: 20. It certainly put paid to the Moderates’ deluded claim that somebody as shop-soiled and controversial as Hawke could ‘never’ get into Parliament.

The result is that the Right now has a new taxpayer-funded headquarters in Mitchell right next door to another safe Liberal seat, Berowra, which will be falling vacant when Philip Ruddock retires.

There are no prizes for guessing what will happen between now and then.

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

Like what you just read? Click here to sign up for a free trial subscription to access all articles for four weeks.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.