Coalition stalwarts, Labor true believers and the politically apathetic agree that next week’s NSW state election will be a whitewash but there hasn’t been much serious critique of Barry O’Farrell’s impending government in the press. It’s as if it might spoil a good opportunity to teach Labor a lesson.
The soft treatment meted out to the incoming Liberals by the papers is worrying because even up until September last year, the right wing of the NSW division was tearing itself apart in branch stacking and preselection battles.
O’Farrell’s ability to retain the public’s faith in his party’s bona fides is reliant on a tenuous peace between the ascendant moderate faction that supports him and the "soft" Right — nicknamed the "ambition faction" — headed up by serial pest and federal member for Mitchell Alex Hawke. Considering that the endemic conflict between Hawke and his former backers in the hard Right NSW "Uglies" — led by Opus Dei Catholic David Clarke MLC — has been causing the NSW division grief in the media over the last two years, O’Farrell’s past form as an afactional emissary and fixer will be tested.
In the latest Monthly, Mark Aarons briefly foreshadows the looming conflict inside the Right and attributes it to the character and history of the "Uglies". Rebranded as the "Taliban" in recent years for their increasing militancy, they learned their tactics from Ljenko Urbancic, a Slovenian Nazi collaborator and propagandist whose branch stacking activities with the former Liberal Ethnic Council were notorious. Although Urbancic died in 2006 and the Uglies’ conflict with the "ambition" faction has weakened their position inside the party, there are reasons not to relegate them to the pages of history.
Aarons is a weathervane for the political winds of the NSW Right. His report on Urbancic’s wartime membership of the Fascist Slovene Domobrans fighters and authorship of anti-Semitic articles in the newspaper Jutro was broadcast in 1979 on the ABC’s Broadband and catalysed the Slovene emigre’s suspension from the Liberal Party. When moderates in the NSW division moved to expel him in November of that year, his supporters accused the party hierarchy of Anglo-Saxon triumphalism and unsuccessfully attempted to impose their own scrutineers and returning officers upon the ballot. The motion failed to meet the required 60 per cent majority by 15 votes, because, historian Ian Hancock says, enough "ordinary Liberals" and "little old ladies" were wary of expulsion motions and believed the Liberal party should remain a broad church.
Moreover, David Clarke was Urbancic’s protege and despite his insistence that they were just acquaintances, he was among the chief fighters defending his preselection. According to Hancock, he notoriously threatened to deploy thousands of Croatians, previously reserved by the Liberal Ethnic Council for branch stacking purposes, in a mass rally in Urbancic’s support. In more recent years he has exercised considerable influence over the Young Liberal movement, who have been described as "foot soldiers" in a branch-stacking war by both John Hyde Page, author of The Education of a Young Liberal and Four Corners.
Alex Hawke MP was the first Right-wing Federal President of the Young Liberals in 2005 after having served as an adviser to David Clarke. In that same year John Brogden alleged Hawke was responsible for leaked media smears that led to his resignation and suicide attempt. Peter Debnam took the party leadership with the support of Clarke and the Taliban. O’Farrell was reported to have been out-lobbied but, according to Liberal insiders, declined the position in order to avoid becoming another factional casualty.
Two years later Brogden was defeated and Hawke usurped the Mitchell preselection from stalwart federal Liberal Alan Cadman who, exasperated, claimed at the time that "80 per cent of the people involved in the preselection process didn’t even live in Mitchell." By this stage Liberal party commentators were decrying the takeover of the hard right. For some this has been cause for celebration, however. Miranda Devine considered the shift right to be a positive hold-over from the Howard years, while Alan Jones is in Clarke’s corner, having repeatedly denounced Hawke’s "bikie gang tactics", describing him as a "cancer" on the NSW Liberal party.
Nevertheless, the media scorn didn’t prevent Hawke and Clarke from publicly agreeing to a "peace treaty" in late 2009. No prizes for guessing how long it stood up.
The two years leading up to next week’s election and the preselection wars that occurred during that time need to be viewed through this historical prism: savage personality clashes almost devoid of substantive policy or ideological conflicts, driven by the egos, personalities and ambitions of a horde of Young Liberals, staffers and organisers whose employment relies on factional victory, with Urbancic’s shadow still lurking in the corners of the factional subconscious.
The Taliban’s new victories will primarily come from western Sydney and the Central Coast and the preselection battles for those seats demonstrate the fight is not yet over for O’Farrell. In Castle Hill, dirt sheets on Hawke’s candidate Ashley Pittard were circulated by Clarke backers, calling into question sums over $360,000 donated by Pittard to the Federal Electoral Council in Hawke’s seat of Mitchell. He was soundly defeated and Dominic Perrottet, a Clarke protege, was preselected and his 19.1 per cent margin will make it hard to unseat him. To add insult to injury, he’ll be Hawke’s electoral counterpart in the state parliament.
The Taliban’s candidate for The Entrance has also attracted some media heat for past political connections. Chris Spence served as the President of One Nation’s youth division and ran for both Fraser and Barwon in 1998 and 2003 respectively. Both Kristina Kenneally and Eric Roozendaal have attacked him over his prior affiliation, Roozendaal dubbing him a One Nation "puppet master" owing to his efforts establishing the ACT and NSW branches. He also witnessed the statutory declarations of witness employees during the fatuous Iguanagate affair of 2008 that saw John Della Bosca dismissed. Barry O’Farrell dismisses this as a "youthful indiscretion". Little wonder critics dismiss the party’s Right as a "racist rump".
After speaking to a member of the moderate faction this week on condition of anonymity, it’s to me clear that ascendant left wingers think the Taliban is on the wane. They are "bomb throwers", whose "unsustainable branch stacking tactics" have left them moribund and susceptible to white-anting by Hawke and co. But even if they are outnumbered in the party room, it is only a matter of time before new Taliban MPs start behaving like their better-established counterparts.
Let the "progressive" moderates proclaim they "make the party electable". The Taliban is O’Farrell’s biggest liability. Milton Orkopoulous was the tipping point for Labor’s corruption woes; the internecine battles of the Right has the same potential to cause mayhem. Here’s hoping the premier-in-waiting has the ability to keep them on the chain.
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