A Liberal Party dispute is threatening to delay the search for aspiring MPs in crucial seats at the coming federal election, setting up a challenge for Prime Minister Scott Morrison over the power of party members to choose the candidates.
Liberal faction leaders want the party to let members vote in plebiscites to select new candidates to take on federal crossbench MPs such as independent Zali Steggall in Warringah and United Australia Party MP Craig Kelly in Hughes.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet visit the Western Sydney Airport.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
The moderate and conservative factions also want an open vote on whether state transport minister Andrew Constance stands for the federal seat of Gilmore on the NSW south coast, given support for local party member Paul Ell instead.
With a similar dispute over the NSW Central Coast seat of Dobell, the party is struggling to agree on how to name the strongest candidates in four seats that are regarded as key to the federal government’s fortunes at the next election.
Mr Morrison goes into the election in a weakened position compared to his victory by two seats in May 2019 because redistributions in Victoria and Western Australia have eroded his lead, making victories in NSW and Queensland crucial to the outcome.
The Liberal Party’s NSW state council is being asked to decide on competing proposals to decide the preselections, with the moderate and conservative factions largely aligned against a push from powerbroker Alex Hawke, the Immigration Minister and one of Mr Morrison’s strongest allies.
The state council could decide the issue on Friday night in response to a request from the moderate and conservative wings for preselections to be held by February.
While this would give party members a say in the choice of candidates, it would only allow limited time for the successful Liberal candidates to campaign at the election, which is expected between March and May.
Mr Hawke is said to have put a proposal to colleagues to have a speedy decision on the seat of Hughes in southwest Sydney so state MP Melanie Gibbons could be confirmed as the candidate.
The Liberals are hoping for a strong candidate in the blue-ribbon seat to take it back from Mr Kelly, the former Liberal who quit the party in February after a storm over his controversial views on coronavirus cures, later joining the UAP and its founder, mining magnate Clive Palmer.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet is said to be unhappy with Ms Gibbons’ decision to leave state Parliament and force a by-election in order to switch to federal politics.
Mr Hawke is so close to Mr Morrison that many Liberals in the NSW division believe the Prime Minister supports the push to stop open plebiscites and wants to install candidates such as Mr Constance in Gilmore and Ms Gibbons in Hughes.
The party is struggling to agree on the best candidate to run against Ms Steggall in Warringah, the seat previously held by former prime minister Tony Abbott but considered a major challenge for the Liberals after being held by an independent for almost three years.
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