Alex Hawke made a career out of exploiting divisions in the Liberal Party and has been at the centre of some of the most infamous political manoeuvring in its history. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
The Liberal numbers man has been named as masterminding a plot to have the party’s New South Wales branch dissolved so candidates in a dozen seats could be installed without a vote of grassroots members.
Calls for Mr Hawke’s resignation have been made, but some Liberal sources say support is emerging for the party to go one better.
“What’s the difference between losing 16 and losing 17 seats?” one Liberal said when asked the impact on the party room. “A silver lining.”
When Tony Abbott this week said that “heads have got to roll” in the NSW Liberals for “those who’d played the factional game”, there was no doubting who he meant.
Leaders in an otherwise divided party back a plan by Senator Andrew Bragg to cut operators like Mr Hawke out of preselections by making it harder for member ballots to be cancelled .
Open preselections are already official Liberal policy after party members voted overwhelmingly for reform five years ago, only to ignore it this year.
Mr Hawke has succeeded despite his many enemies and condemnation from the likes of commentators Alan Jones, Miranda Devine and Peta Credlin.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in a 2006 media release, said Mr Hawke was “well known for his extremist views and tactics within the Liberal Party”.
This reputation was cemented by what critics allege was Mr Hawke’s first documented disloyalty, a story that has become Liberal legend.
Mr Hawke was a long-time ally and staffer for David Clarke, leader of the dominant faction in NSW called “the Taliban” for its members’ uncompromising views.
But after Mr Clarke supported his protege’s preselection for the seat of Mitchell, Mr Hawke battled him for control of political territory, which he won.
Mr Hawke spun off his own political faction, the centre-right, known to detractors as the “ambition faction” for bringing all of the tactics employed by moderates and conservatives without the burden of their convictions.
One of the first to sign up was Scott Morrison.
Mr Hawke was named as a leader of a plot to vote for Peter Dutton in a leadership spill to make him overconfident and PM Malcolm Turnbull wounded all to help undeclared candidate Scott Morrison.
Combined with the loss of allies such as Lucy Wicks at the election, Mr Hawke’s support base is not as strong as it had been.
“There’s a lot of cleaning up to do in the NSW division of the Liberal Party,” Mr Dutton said this week.
“There was an unacceptable arrangement in relation to preselections at the last election.”
Mr Dutton’s deputy, Sussan Ley, has denied involvement in Liberal factions, but party sources have long said she aligns with the centre-right.
Leading up to the election, Mr Hawke did not show up to 10 months’ worth of meetings on a Liberal panel reviewing preselections, on which he represented Mr Morrison.
So nominations stalled; the factions tried to broker a deal in secret.
Seats at stake included Mr Hawke’s seat of Mitchell, under threat from a long list of aggrieved parties, Ms Ley’s seat and also Trent Zimmerman’s former seat of North Sydney and nine “winnable” contests.
Mr Hawke declined to comment in response to a text message from The New Daily but has previously said he was motivated by a desire to protect women in Parliament.
A factional peace plan pitched by Mr Hawke failed and the federal Liberal Party had little choice but to back Mr Morrison’s proposal to take over.
Federal Liberal vice president Nick Minchin told The New Daily the candidates were endorsed one year too late.
“The state and federal party must not allow such manipulation of the constitution to ever happen again,” he said.
Mr Hawke and Ms Ley kept their seats, as did Jenny Ware in Hughes, held by Craig Kelly, who quit the party in the last parliament, but otherwise all other hand-picked candidates lost.
His point to an article by Paul Sheehan about the party’s 2010 election campaign as proof that Mr Hawke harms the party: “For tactical reasons Hawke and his allies delayed several preselections in federal NSW seats – crucially Greenway and Lindsay – for six months. The seats were lost and with them the election.”
The plan to kick him out is being backed by some state Liberals who are senior in the party’s conservative wing.
It centres on allegations made in 2018 – that a vital branch in Mr Hawke’s electorate admitted 10 new members at a meeting he attended only for the decision to be reversed and documents altered.
The Baulkham Hills branch saga has been well known for years; Alan Jones called for it to “come before the courts” and said Mr Hawke was a “professional branch stacker”.
The New Daily makes no suggestion of wrongdoing on Mr Hawke’s part or any knowledge of these affairs.
Party bosses appeared disinterested in the complaint for three years; a source says one witness also sought to withdraw their allegation in unusual circumstances.
But last June, as Liberal antipathy toward Mr Hawke and the former PM grew, legal advice was obtained about the branch and they voted to have it suspended.
The matter had been destined to remain on the back burner. Since the election, it’s being reviewed with new interest.