Abbott faces battle telling NSW Liberals what to do
Sydney Morning Herald
Monday February 21, 2011
Tony Abbott will have no quibble with a finding in part two of Labor's post-election review, the unreleased section that deals with the election campaign.In the words of a member of the ALP national executive who read the review on Friday, a key reason Labor fell over the line on August 21 last year was because the NSW division of the Liberal Party "fluffed it".The review does not delve into the mechanics of the NSW division and whether state or federal Liberals were to blame. It simply makes the observation that late or poor preselections by the Liberals in key vulnerable seats and misguided resourcing ensured the ALP did far better than expected in NSW and, as a result, clung to office.For all the bile directed towards the NSW kingmakers, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, Sussex Street concentrated on sandbagging these seats and, consequently, Labor lost only two held seats in NSW, Bennelong and Macquarie. It won the Liberal-held Greenway and held onto crucial seats such as Lindsay, Robertson, Dobell, Eden-Monaro and Banks.Due in part to the toxicity of the respective state governments, Labor was polling as poorly overall in Queensland as it was in NSW. Had the wipeout Labor experienced in Queensland been repeated in NSW, Abbott would be prime minister. No doubt.Abbott expressed this view in September. He believes at least four seats in NSW - Lindsay, Robertson, Greenway and Banks - would have come his way had they been handled better. As this paper reported last week, the Liberals' own post-election review, which Abbott commissioned from the former federal minister Peter Reith, is expected to support the Abbott viewpoint.Unsurprisingly, the review has been shelved until after the March 26 state election so as not to cause a repeat of the stoush between Abbott and NSW divisional officials that erupted when Abbott first made the claims, and which sorely strained his relationship with Barry O'Farrell.With O'Farrell all but certain to win on March 26, NSW Liberals are already warning that a premier beats a federal opposition leader and, therefore, the division will not be pushed around.If you ignore the recommendation in the ALP review, which suggests giving unions a 20 per cent say in preselections, overall, the ALP elders have made proposals that will empower the increasingly disenfranchised rank and file.Conversely, the Reith review, sources say, will propose a centralisation of power in the Liberal Party so the "feds" can step in when they deem fit.They would be able, for example, to intervene or parachute a candidate into a federal seat if the federal leader was unhappy with who had been chosen or if the process was taking too long.Rather than vest such powers in the large, unwieldy and hard-to-control Liberal federal executive, there is a suggestion of trying again to establish an administration committee, a scaled-back version of the executive that would comprise party elders with a federal perspective, such as David Kemp.Several states, including NSW, blocked moves to establish the committee last year.Abbott has already given notice that he wants change. After the election, he demanded that the NSW divisional president, Natasha Maclaren-Jones, move aside for the universally regarded Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard's former chief of staff.There was fierce resistance to what locals perceived as bullying and an unfair attempt to sheet all the blame for the Liberal performance in NSW to the state division.Maclaren-Jones, they told Abbott, would enter the state upper house after the election and, keen to avoid a fight before then, O'Farrell and others urged Abbott to wait, with the guarantee Sinodinos would get the job.Abbott refused. Eventually, after a heated meeting in his office late last year, O'Farrell killed the push by calling a press conference and supporting Maclaren-Jones.NSW Liberals numbers men are now refusing to guarantee Sinodinos the position even after Maclaren-Jones leaves, such is the ill-feeling that was generated. "It has now become an issue," an official said.The NSW division has always resented being told what to do. There was no better example than when it defied Howard in an election year, 2007, when he demanded the controversial preselection in Cook be overturned. Howard got his way, but it involved an extremely damaging three-month battle.Those who opposed Howard spoke pejoratively of "the firm", the term used for the network he had established over the years to keep a hand in the workings of the division and to look after the interests of the federal parliamentary party.Abbott, too, say people close to him, wants to establish a firm, but he will meet resistance. Said the official: "It's different when you've got a premier."