How Tony Abbott Went Rogue and Helped Blow Up NSW’s Liberal Party

Toney time never ends.
Don Arnold / Getty Images

Chances are Australia is about to enter one of its most annoying elections in living memory. 

Fresh off a Budget which made little effort to pretend it wasn’t entirely about desperately buying votes, and staring down a policy-free Opposition campaign hyper-focused on Scott Morrison being a personally shitty guy, you could be forgiven for tuning out entirely.

But there really is an incredible drama playing out that has flown under the public’s radar outside of the political pages. It’s the fact that, days before the election campaign is likely to start, the NSW Liberal Party has still not selected candidates for some of its absolute must-win seats in the state — seats that in a normal election would have been locked-in a year ago.


And just like many things in politics, society and the Australian psyche more generally, it is in no small part Tony Abbott’s fault.

Here’s the rundown. 

Back in 2018, Abbott and a coterie of gargoyles in the right-wing faction of the NSW Liberal Party successfully pushed for new rules that would give the grassroots of the party more say in pre-selecting candidates for local, state and federal elections. The so-called ‘Warringah rules’ — named for Abbott’s old seat, now held by independent Zali Steggall — would give local branches the right to hold plebiscites selecting candidates rather than having them be handpicked by party elites. 

Abbott and friends weren’t necessarily doing this because they are passionate believers in direct democracy.

They did it to shift the balance of power.

It was their (basically correct) belief that the average Liberal Party member was much more conservative than the party’s governing bodies, which are dominated by moderates. By giving those members a bigger say in preselections, the party could become more conservative overall.

These rules passed, with some checks on the untrammelled populism of the original proposal. The State Executive and State Council of the Liberal Party would still get 25 percent of the vote, giving them reasonably significant sway over preselections.

The 2022 federal election is the first to run subject to these rules, and it’s fair to say it has all gone to absolute piss: Five potentially winnable seats still have no candidates in an election where every seat will count. 


The federal executive of the party, led by Scott Morrison and backed by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, has intervened, forcing through the preselections of sitting members like North Sydney moderate Trent Zimmerman. They’re throwing everything at the wall to overrule the process and impose their own preferred candidates on the remaining seats, including an appeal to the High Court that was unceremoniously knocked back on Thursday afternoon. An IT millionaire - and Liberal Party member - has been running his own legal campaign to return power to members. Local branches are in uproar. Immigration minister and Morrison ally Alex Hawke, the factional goon who is in large part responsible for attempts to evade the new process, was booed at a meeting of party members on the weekend. Concetta Ferrivanti-Wells, the ultraconservative NSW Senator who has been relegated to an unwinnable spot on the party’s ticket, launched a late-night spray calling the prime minister an “autocrat” and a “bully” hated by rank-and-file Liberals for his attempts to intervene.


In short: chaos reigns.

So, what’s gone wrong? 

Running the internal affairs of a political party in democratic fashion is a great idea on paper. After all, isn’t that what politics in a liberal democracy is all about — the will of the people? Surely having candidates who reflect the desires of the grassroots base is what we should aimfor as a general rule. 

Well, yes. 

But when you’re trying to win an election, it can get more complicated than that.

Part of the problem is that the Liberal Partyis still made up of a mess of competing political ideologies and power structures. 

Since Federation, Australian politics has ultimately been about a number of politically diverse right-wingers teaming up to defeat Labor. Part of the function of the Liberal Party and the Coalition more generally is to keep all those people in one tent being relatively civil to one another despite major disagreements on just about everything - economics, marriage equality, climate change, immigration, vaccines, you name it.

In a perfect world, Liberal Party elites at both the state and federal level would love to carve up and allocate preselections in a way that maintains balance between liberals and conservatives and keeps all factions happy with their lot — which is what they tried to do with the empty seats. Of course, powerful players also want to see their friends and allies elevated too. Members in local branches don’t really give a toss about enforcing factional peace at the top. They just want their preferred guy to get up. 


Another issue is that Liberal Party branch members are not necessarily reflective of the population at large. Most people really do not give a shit about institutional politics on that level. They show up and vote on Election Day, and might have strident opinions about exactly why the country is going to the bloody dogs, but they are probably not getting involved in political parties at the grassroots level.

Team Abbott was basically right. Your average Liberal Party branch member is likely to be much more conservative and, much crazier than the average voter. In an election where Labor is currently dominating the polls, the Liberals don’t really want to be left with risky candidates in seats they need to win. 

Take Warringah, Abbott’s old seat. In the new preselection process, the last guy standing to take on Zali Steggall was Lincoln Parker, an anti-China hawk who writes for far-right Falun Gong rag The Epoch Times and has hit out at climate “extremists”. Probably not the guy to take back the electorate which booted Tony in favour of one of those very same extremists. The Liberals consider that seat winnable, and want to install a more palatable, competitive candidate to maximise their chances.

Before you start thinking that all of this is simply the rational machinations of a cohesive party that wants wants to win in May, we can’t forget that so much of this is also probably the result of completely inscrutable blood feuds between some of the weirdest, least likeable people in the country. There’s a lot of internecine hatred here that isn’t necessarily politically legible. Morrison and Hawke have been trying to rewrite the DNA of the NSW Liberal Party along factional lines for their mates for many years at this point, so it’s important to remember that so much of this is motivated by enmity, spite and — if I may be blunt — total sicko shit.


On the other side of the aisle, Labor is facing its own tensions over preselection, with concerns raised about party executives parachuting high-profile white candidates like former Kevin Rudd advisor Andrew Charlton or shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally into diverse, multicultural electorates. But these pale in comparison to the complicated mess playing out within the Liberals.

So that’s the basic story. Labor is ahead in the polls, and if they pull off a win in May it might have the NSW Liberal Party’s complete inability to get its shit together to thank for it. 

And, as always, the machinations of one Anthony John Abbott. Sunrise, sunset.

Follow James on Twitter and subscribe to his newsletter.

Read more from VICE Australia.