Saturday, September 22, 2007

Zealous converts dominate Liberal cult

By Irfan Yusuf Federal Liberal Candidate 20 August 2007

At the last state election, New South Wales voters were caught in a choice between an incompetent Government and an Opposition Coalition in almost complete disarray.

The National Party was able to secure two seats from the ALP, and the Liberal Party secured only one seat from the ALP.

John Howard's frequent refrain that the Liberal Party is a broad church of liberals and conservatives is, in electoral terms, almost axiomatic. Not all Liberal voters are socially conservative. Hence, there is no reason why liberals (with a small "l") cannot have a role in either the organisational or parliamentary wings of the Liberal Party.

Genuine ideological differences do exist between small "l" and big "L" Liberals. However, in theory at least, ideological factions in the Liberal Party should put aside their squabbling when fighting common political opponents.

Sadly, cross-factional co-operation has been almost absent inside the organisational wing of the NSW Liberal Party for a number of reasons.

First, factions have tended to act in the interests of their own ascendancy within the party, even if this means sacrificing the party's chances in general elections. When small "l" liberal John Brogden led the party in the 2003 election he received hardly any assistance from the NSW Young Liberals flying squad who in previous years had proven such an effective campaign force. The NSW Young Liberals had just been taken over by an ultra-conservative faction led by a staffer of a right-wing NSW upper house member with close ties to Opus Dei.

Brogden was not only a young and promising leader with experience across a broad range of portfolios, he was also a popular local member with strong links to local sporting clubs and community organisations. Yet a far-right section of the conservative wing of the Liberal Party organisation saw him as an enemy to be politically eliminated.

When Brogden faced an internal pre-selection for his seat in 1998, I sat on his preselection panel. I was approached by members of the far-right, some of whom attended as observers, and asked to put a difficult question to Brogden. One of those who discussed the preselection question with me said, "This Brogden fellow has to be stopped. Can you imagine him as leader? Or worse still, as premier?"

Second, the NSW Liberal Party has not recovered from a major factional realignment which coincided with John Howard's 1996 landslide victory. The win seemed impossible coming so soon after the unexpected fall of the Fahey government in the 1995 state election. It injected into the conservative wing a large proportion of people who had recently left the small "l" faction known as "the Group". These ideological refugees believed their ambitions were best met by aligning themselves with a faction which was more ideologically aligned with the Prime Minister. And as in religion, so in politics, it is converts who often do the dirtiest work against members of their old congregation.

Third, a winner-takes-all attitude had become entrenched within the organisation. During the late 1990s, the Group dominated but did not have absolute control. Conservative candidates (or at least candidates not aligned with the Group) could win pre-selections and be elected to Parliament. For instance, prior to the 1996 federal election, the conservative wing was able to pre-select a senior staffer from Tony Abbott's office to run in what was then the very marginal seat of Parramatta. When that candidate withdrew, the conservatives were able to preselect another conservative candidate, Ross Cameron.

However, the tables have turned more dramatically than anyone expected. The zealous converts have taken over the now dominant conservative wing. Far from being a broad church, the party now more resembles a cultish congregation where position comes at the price of supporting a narrow set of socially conservative principles.

Factional in-fighting is nothing new in the Liberal Party. Often it is a mixture of personalities and ideology which can often be dealt with by trade-offs and deals. But the current dominating forces in the NSW party are driven almost exclusively by ideology. Hence, one doubts whether a Nick Greiner, a Tony Staley or some other elder statesman could solve the problem.

As the ABC Four Corners program entitled "The Right Stuff" (broadcast in July, 2006) showed, this new right has even gone to the extent of sidelining conservatives who do not agree with its narrow religious and ideological agenda.

Realistically, the only person who has any ability to rein in this far-right cabal is the Prime Minister himself. The situation has become so bad that now the NSW Nationals are openly canvassing the possibility of dissolving the Coalition. One can hardly blame them. Any continued association with a party dominated by such ultra-conservatives is virtually unelectable.

If Howard doesn't act soon, his refrain of the party being a broad church may soon become a contradiction in terms. He might also be confirming criticism Kevin Rudd made in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 9, 1996, when he wrote of a systematic culling of small "l" Liberals or old-fashioned Fraserian conservatives with a social conscience from their ranks.

When that happens, the Liberals might find the only party willing to enter into a Coalition agreement will be Fred Nile's Christian Democrats.

First published in The Canberra Times on March 30, 2007.


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