The ex- Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott gets plenty of attention in sections of the Australian media, most of it critical, as it has been for decades now. The personal nature of a lot of it and even unprofessional abuse (“oaf” just one of many pointed attacks on Mr Abbott by a particular senior journalist), and another showed such bias that she has written up to 60 articles highly critical of him since January 2015. On my estimation, she never once disclosed that her husband was a close insider/employee with his successor Malcolm Turnbull but that is par for the course these days.
The saga of the Australian Canberra press gallery pack with respect to the years of attacks on Tony Abbott deserves a number of articles but for now, these comments on his recent triumph need to be made.
The NSW branch of the Liberal Party of Australia has been undemocratic for many years. Various factions of all kinds strictly prevented mere members from having much of a direct say in voting for pre-selections to parliament as Senators or virtually any other position. For years there have been embarrassing examples of branch stacking, physical confrontations and police being called to their meetings.
A number of people had tried to reform this party state branch and all had failed. Even people with the prestige of Australia’s second longest serving prime Minister, John Howard, couldn’t fight this inequity. Howard was against the closed system and wanted it reformed but, for whatever reason, never pushed it to the limit. I suppose a stonewalling “no” stopped him, as this also happens in the Australian Labor Party also (eg when Simon Crean wanted to change the union representation in the ALP).
A NSW premier, Barry O’Farrell didn’t do it either and while people of all positions of power in NSW Liberals stated – sometimes very publicly, but in official reports also – that they wanted democratic change and plebiscites or some other method to allow members a vote, nothing was done.
Until Tony Abbott, that is.
There had been years of comments about lobbyists being involved as senior members of the party (and thus with influence over pre-selections); there were corruption allegations proved against Liberal members on the Central Coast and the rigid factional system resulted in poor candidates, they to be easily beaten at elections. Tony Abbott fought these from the time he became leader in 2009 and took the party from a hopeless position with Malcolm Turnbull as leader to within a hair’s breadth of victory in the 2010 election. His landslide victory was attained n September 2013
In that election of 2010, an actual election year, the incompetent NSW branch did not even have a candidate selected for a very marginal seat, that of Lindsay in western Sydney and then selected a factional non-entity for another seat, also in western Sydney.
With no action on reform and not much practical assistance to Abbott in his early years as opposition leader, he acted immediately.when he finally became Prime Minister of Australia in September 2013,
It took only a single week after his election in 2013 for him to ban lobbyists from being party officials.He banned anyone who was a senior office holder in the party from being recognised as a lobbyist with his government and the NSW Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell quickly copied him in the State, something O’Farrell had not done since his own election 2 and a half years earlier. As the faction bosses then opted for their lobbying business rather than party position, they showed their priorities.
Tony Abbott never stopped advocating for these changes to the processes of the party. By November 2013, a mere two months after his election, he had commissioned former PM John Howard to lead a group towards producing suggestions on it and the 2 year membership plebiscite was what Howard produced in 2014, the very model Abbott presented through his Warringah motion on 23 July 2017. In the Howard Report, spurious claims such as the fear of “branch stacking” were rejected out of hand by Howard himself and the 2-year waiting period was said to be enough to eliminate that as a risk.
With all the smears thrown at Abbott in the past few months – everything was to topple Turnbull as PM, the motion was just him and an effort to disrupt the people on other factions, conveniently forgetting – on purpose – his fights with all factions to get candidates into winnable seats whether they be “his” faction or not. In the seat of Robertson the case of Lucy Wicks – a Hawke/Morrison creature – seems to be a fine case in point as was him arguing against endorsing a supposed conservative candidate in Greenway Jaymes Diaz. Abbott was very fortunate to have with him – actually beside him – Major General Jim Molan, MP Craig Kelly and MP Angus Taylor, amongst others. All three of them made their commitment to the democratisation of the party even though their own future careers were therefore put at risk of revenge from the factional bosses. Angus Taylor, in particular, is at great risk from them, precisely when he is the long-term future of the Liberal Party in parliament and Craig Kelly is the solid rock that the party needs. Jim Molan is a massive gain for the party and it would be a real loss for Australia if any of these three were to be lost to parliament. That is what they put on the line. Everything.
That’s what it takes to change, to inspire.
With the usual anti-Abbott media going all out on anything to do with only Abbott (and nearly all of it critical), the meeting to democratise the Liberal Party came to be on and over 1,000 people were there and, in an overwhelming vote, 60/40 backed the Abbott proposal. To see the crowd giving Tony Abbott and Jim Molan an old fashioned three cheers, meant a lot but signified a huge amount.
Tony Abbott showed what he has to offer and not only was it the achievement unattainable by others, he brought magnificent people with him as his partners for change and the party members were inspired by his example as the response to him indicates.
While the factions are still in their holes at present, they will creep out again. They have too much to lose in so many ways. It is to stop this being in the worst possible way that they must still fight, What is on their side (and this seems to be recognised by the media too) is that opposition to the progress of the Abbott motion will probably destroy the party.