The federal executive of the Liberal party has staged another dramatic intervention in the troubled NSW branch and will take over all remaining contested preselections in New South Wales.
With the prime minister, Scott Morrison, expected to soon call the election, the three branch plebiscites scheduled for this week will be abandoned.
The Liberal federal executive voted Sunday morning to appoint a three-person committee – comprised of Morrison, NSW premier Dominic Perrottet and the former federal president of the party Chris McDiven – to take over the NSW division until next Saturday.
The committee has been empowered to appoint candidates in the potentially winnable seats of Warringah, Hughes, Parramatta and Eden-Monaro and Greenway.
It will also appoint candidates in seats the Liberals have little chance of winning, including Grayndler (held by the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese), Fowler (being contested by immigration spokesperson, Kristina Keneally), Newcastle and McMahon.
The move, which has infuriated some of the party faithful, means the prime minister will have a big say in the remaining candidates and put his stamp on the make up of the parliamentary party in NSW.
But it is likely to lead to further litigation by disgruntled Liberal party members and potentially more byelections for Perrottet, with up to two state MPs angling to move to Canberra.
The NSW transport minister, David Elliott, is said to have re-ignited his interest in moving to federal politics and contesting either Parramatta or Greenway – both held by Labor but seen as winnable for the Liberals.
Despite not having nominated, Elliott is a prominent member of the prime minister’s centre right faction and could now be springboarded into a federal seat.
His political reputation has suffered a blow in recent weeks over his handling of industrial tensions with the Rail, Tram and Bus Union in NSW.
“The minister won’t be commenting,” a spokesperson said on Sunday.
The state MP for Holsworthy, Melanie Gibbons, has nominated for Hughes, currently held by former Liberal Craig Kelly by a margin of 9.9%. But there was talk on Sunday that the prime minister was pushing for Gwen Cherne, a war veteran family advocate, to run instead of local lawyer Jenny Ware, who has the backing of the moderates.
Jerry Nockles, a former ministerial staffer who now works for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, appears most likely to be appointed to Eden-Monaro.
The federal intervention comes despite branch meetings and votes being scheduled in Parramatta on Monday, Hughes on Thursday and Eden-Monaro on Saturday.
“It’s disgusting,” said one member, who is not authorised to speak to the media. “It’s as if the members just don’t matter.”
The NSW Liberal party’s problems with appointing candidates have been brought about by a change in the party’s constitution in 2018, via the “Warringah motion”, which introduced a much greater say for ordinary branch members in choosing candidates.
The rules only recently came into force and this is the first major election where they have been tested. This has led to factional manoeuvring in a bid to avoid plebiscites, which now appears to have succeeded.
The immigration minister and centre right factional player, Alex Hawke, who is widely blamed for delaying the branch selections, was booed by the 500 party members who attended state council this weekend.
An earlier court case, brought by NSW state executive member Matthew Camenzuli seeking to void an earlier action by the federal executive to reappoint three sitting MPs, is scheduled for a hearing in the NSW supreme court on Thursday.
It could be expedited and expanded to cover the latest intervention by the federal executive.
A messy court case would be an unwelcome distraction for the party at the start of the federal election campaign.
Further byelections for state seats vacated by Liberal MPs swapping to federal politics would put Perrottet under pressure.
Elliott’s state seat of Baulkham Hills is one of the safest and would be unlikely to change hands in a byelection, but Holsworthy is marginal.
Perrottet is already facing governing in minority with the suspension last week of the Liberal MP for Kiama, Gareth Ward, who has been charged over allegations of sexual abuse against a man and a 17-year-old boy. Ward denies the allegations.
The most likely candidate for the northern beaches seat of Warringah, now held by independent Zali Steggall, is disability campaigner David Brady. But the Liberals believe they have little chance of regaining the seat this time around.
Over the weekend the NSW division held a selection for the Senate. Marise Payne secured the first spot on the ticket, while Senator Jim Molan secured the third spot, edging out Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.