For two weeks, moderates within the New South Wales Liberal party have been asking the same question: why did the prime minister pick lightning rod candidate Katherine Deves in Warringah?
To be crystal clear, no one in the party thought Warringah was winnable. The Liberals went through a laundry list of potential candidates, including two former state premiers – Gladys Berejiklian and Mike Baird – in a bid to find a star to unseat independent Zali Steggall. None of them wanted it.
Amid the chaos of the NSW preselection saga, their original preferred candidate, the Sydney barrister Jane Buncle, also pulled out.
In the end, Warringah was an afterthought.
Prior to the federal intervention that saw Scott Morrison, Dominic Perrottet and former state party president Christine McDiven take control of nominations, the factions in NSW had sought to carve out a deal which would keep everyone happy-ish and avoid a takeover.
The moderates had pushed for disability advocate David Brady, while the right wanted defence analyst Lincoln Parker. But this wasn’t a hill anyone outside the seat was interested in dying on.
As sources from both the left and the right of the party told Guardian Australia this week, neither candidate was likely to trouble Steggall, but nor would they have caused any headaches.
In hindsight, that quality is particularly important for the moderates, who find themselves in a tough fight against independents in two demographically similar seats in Sydney. Both the Wentworth MP, Dave Sharma, and North Sydney’s Trent Zimmerman need an inflammatory debate about trans issues about as much as they need a campaign visit from Morrison right now.
The most generous interpretation of Deves’ preselection is that the prime minister wanted to boost his credentials with female voters by picking a slew of female candidates.
On the same day Deves was announced as the Warringah candidate, the Liberal party also confirmed Jenny Ware in Hughes and Maria Kovacic in Parramatta.
A more cynical interpretation might be that, in a tough re-election campaign, elements of the Liberal party saw an electoral advantage in whistling to certain parts of the electorate through the misleadingly benign prism of integrity in women’s sport.
The second option raises some interesting questions. If Morrison had decided, for example, that he could use Deves’ candidacy to shore up votes in more socially conservative parts of the country, the natural extension of that equation is that he has given up on the moderates who are fighting off the teal independents.
Even if it wasn’t the initial plan, Morrison’s comments since have certainly created that dynamic. By seeking to move the conversation on from what it actually was – Deves’ history of highly offensive and transphobic comments – to a culture war about “cancelling” her, the prime minister, with the help of the conservative press, has moved the election into murky territory for the NSW moderates.
Which is why they’re now on the warpath. Matt Kean’s intervention into the debate – calling for Deves to be disendorsed – was motivated by moral conviction, but it was also a warning: if the prime minister wanted this to be the conversation, he’d better be prepared for pushback.
Hence, the fascinating dynamic playing out in the NSW government. After Kean’s intervention, the Australian reported that Perrottet had expressed support for the prime minister’s position on Deves via text message. It also claimed sources had called for Kean to be booted from the party for his “radical-left views”.
Perrottet says he wasn’t the leaker, but was quick to say that while he wanted a “sensitive” debate and that he believed “girls should play sport against girls”.
Such a public divide between the premier and treasurer would usually warrant a torrent of headlines, but has been lost somewhat in the broader debate. Leaving aside independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich’s threat to withdraw supply from the NSW government on the back of Perrottet’s comments, it is the latest demonstration of how the decade-old Liberal government in NSW is slowly losing its discipline.
The Coalition in NSW has been successful for the most part by avoiding fractious culture warring in favour of a moderate Liberal agenda. In short, they’ve privatised a lot of public assets to fund big infrastructure projects.
Since becoming premier, Perrottet, a conservative, has mostly stuck to that playbook, but there are signs of infighting. In March the centre-right transport minister David Elliott was happy to publicly slam his colleagues for pursuing what he called “woke” issues. The new planning minister, Anthony Roberts, who is also from the right, has unpicked sustainability measures introduced by his predecessor, the moderate Rob Stokes.
On the other side, Stokes has publicly called on his government to reconsider the “illusory and ephemeral benefits” of casinos in the wake of revelations about money laundering and criminal activity at The Star in Sydney.
With a number of senior ministers eyeing the exits ahead of the state election in March, the lack of discipline is perhaps not surprising. But the divisions exposed within the NSW Liberal party by the federal election suggest that it could be a difficult 12 months ahead.