In war and politics, it’s always a good idea to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Liberal right-winger Nick Campbell and left-winger Michael Photios agreed to jointly lead the troubled NSW Division of the Liberal Party, after its three key office holders – President Geoff Selig, Vice President Rhondda Vanzella and Treasurer Robert Webster – resigned last week.
The question is: will these two be able to put old factional feuds aside and work together to defeat Morris Iemma?
Campbell is a former convenor of the NSW Young Liberal Right and a former staffer/protégé of Bill Heffernan. I first met Campbell during our student politics days at Macquarie University, during which time he ingratiated and infiltrated the hard-Left. Campbell’s pseudo-Green ticket managed to get at least one Liberal elected to the Union Board with hard-Left preferences.
Campbell’s ability to ingratiate lefties came in handy within the Young Libs, too. In the period between the fall of the Fahey NSW government in 1995 and the ascent of John Howard to the Lodge in 1996, Campbell became convenor of a faction known as "the Team". This loose coalition consisted of conservatives and ex (Liberal) lefties such as Peter Phelps, as well as Vanzella.
Back then, Vanzella orchestrated one of the biggest political coups in NSW Liberal Party history. She took a former ALP member and used him to knock off a sitting shadow minister in the safest Liberal seat in NSW. But this wasn’t any old ALP member. This chap actually boasted into a megaphone of having "never voted Liberal in my life!" Appropriately, he is now Federal Opposition Leader.
Following Howard’s 1996 victory, Nelson rewarded Vanzella with a job in his office. Campbell too was rewarded, commencing work with the factionally unpredictable Senator Bill Heffernan. Unlike Heffernan, Campbell doesn’t shoot his mouth off in a politically incorrect (or indeed inept) fashion. Like his old boss, he is not averse to ratting even on his own.
Tracy Ong’s sources in the most recent Weekend Financial Review described Campbell as "a pragmatist, a ‘medium-C conservative’ … [who]could use the presidency to launch a career in federal politics." One former Federal Liberal candidate described Campbell to me in these terms: "If there are five candidates in a preselection and four have a chance of winning, Campbell will make sure all four think he’s backing them."
Michael Photios is a former Young Liberal President and a former minister in the Fahey government, which was unexpectedly defeated by Bob Carr in 1995, despite the Libs gaining a higher primary vote across the State. After the abolition of his seat of Ermington after the 1995 NSW election, Photios (known unsentimentally as "farty-arse" to his factional opponents) won preselection in Ryde, but was soundly defeated by former Gladesville MP John Watkins in the 1999 election.
Unlike many in the small-"l" liberal faction, Photios is a staunch monarchist. Even outside Parliament, he has had substantial influence, playing a role in negotiating a cross-factional deal to install Peter Debnam as leader after John Brogden stood down in 2005.
Iemma is trying not to sound worried, declaring: "It is still a party at war with itself as you’ve seen from this week, and they’ve done nothing to stop the war."
He might well be right. After all, neither the current State nor Federal Liberal leader were able to stop Selig, Vanzella and Webster from walking. With Howard gone, the Libs no longer have a strong leader to keep Campbell and Photios from stabbing each other in the back.
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