First up, two privately conducted uComms seat polls to relate courtesy of the Australia Institute (you may care to note here the disclosure statement at the bottom of my sidebar, which is particularly relevant to the seats in question), both providing bad news for the Liberals and good news for the independent rebellion they face:
• In North Sydney, the poll shows Liberal member Trent Zimmerman trailing independent Kylea Tink 59-41 and Labor 58-42, suggesting he would lose to whichever of the two finished ahead at the second last count. When results for the two primary vote questions are combined as appropriate, the second being a forced-response follow-up for the initially undecided, Zimmerman is on 35.5%, Labor candidate Catherine Renshaw is on 23.1%, Tink is on 21.3%, and the Greens are on 11.3%.
• In Wentworth, Liberal member Dave Sharma likewise trails independent Allegra Spender by 56-44 and a to-be-determined Labor candidate by 55-45. In this case the primary votes are 37.6% for Sharma, 28.5% for Spender, 19.2% for Labor and 8.0% for the Greens.
The two automated phone polls were conducted on January 24, with samples of 850 in North Sydney and 853 in Wentworth. More detail, including responses on various questions relating to the ABC, is available through the Australia Institute link above. I would add the caution that seat polls do not have a particularly stellar record, perhaps especially so for the kind of inner metropolitan seat under consideration here.
On top of that and everything else, there is all too much news to relate about the New South Wales Liberal Party’s extraordinarily fraught federal preselection process. Its state executive met on Friday to consider a factional peace deal that would have concluded long-delayed preselections for a number of important seats, the catch being that party membership ballots would be bypassed in a number of cases. However, signing off on this required the support of fully 24 out of the executive’s 27 members, and reports indicate it didn’t come close. This raises the spectre of intervention by the federal branch, which in turn would be assured of triggering legal action.
• The stickiest sticking point would seem to be the southern Sydney seat of Hughes, which the Liberals need to wrest back from Craig Kelly after his move to Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. The factional deal would have handed the preselection to PwC Australia management consultant Alex Dore, much to the displeasure of local branch members given he lives in Manly, was earlier weighing up a run in Warringah, and hadn’t even bothered to nominate. Michael Koziol of the Sydney Morning Herald also reports that Scott Morrison is less than enthusiastic about Dore, as he favoured the claim of state Holsworthy MP Melanie Gibbons. This was vehemently opposed by Dominic Perrottet and others who did not care for the prospect of a by-election in marginal Holsworthy, since the state government is already in minority and fears losing the Bega by-election on February 12. However, Koziol’s report suggests the by-election might happen anyway should Gibbons register her displeasure by resigning from parliament. Anne Davies of The Guardian reported last week that some in the party were of the view that Alex Dore for Hughes was so clearly a deal-breaker that it was no more than a ploy to bring on a federal intervention.
• The deal would have spared Sussan Ley a challenge from Christian Ellis, a public relations specialist who has made a name locally campaigning for water rights, in her regional seat of Farrer. Liberal branches in the electorate have reportedly been targeted by a conservative recruitment drive, putting Ley in grave peril despite her status as the Morrison government’s Environment Minister.
• Another incumbent who would have been spared a challenge is Alex Hawke in Mitchell, which is telling since Hawke’s machinations as the leading powerbroker of the centre right faction, and thus a key element of Scott Morrison’s power base, have been widely blamed for the endlessly protracted preselection process. Hawke would reportedly struggle to hold off Michael Abrahams, an army colonel with strong backing among conservatives.
• Another factional powerbroker, moderate Trent Zimmerman, would be rubber-stamped in North Sydney, where he faces challenges from Hamish Stitt and Jessica Collins, respectively aligned with the hard right and the centre right. However, Anne Davies of The Guardian suggests their prospects in a membership ballot would be less strong than those of Ley’s and Hawke’s challengers.
• The deal would have installed the preferred candidate of Scott Morrison, Pentecostal preacher Jemima Gleason, on the Central Coast seat of Dobell, where the Liberals have been hopeful of reeling in Labor’s 1.5% margin. However, Anne Davies of The Guardian reports that Gleason has now withdrawn, and that “another potential candidate – a well-known cricketer – has also cooled on the idea”. Presumably this refers to Nathan Bracken, as per reports last year. This just leaves conservative-aligned Michael Feneley, a cardiologist at St Vincent’s Hospital who has twice run unsuccessfully in the Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith.
• Reports last week indicated the deal would also secure top position on the Coalition Senate ticket for Marise Payne, but it appears Friday’s state executive meeting decided otherwise, since Aaron Patrick of the Financial Review reported on Monday that a process had commenced that would have both winnable Senate positions determined by the usual process involving party branch delegates. Patrick reports the moderate-aligned Payne is “probably safe”, which is just as well given her status as Foreign Minister. With the second position reserved to the Nationals, that leaves number three as a battle between Connie Fierravanti-Wells and Jim Molan. Three incumbents are chasing two seats as a legacy of Nationals Senator Fiona Nash’s Section 44 disqualification in 2017, which left the Liberals with all three of the six-year terms the Coalition won at the 2016 double dissolution. Fierravanti-Wells was elevated from a three-year to a six-year term and Molan, who had initially been unsuccessful at the election, took over her three-year term. Molan was reduced to the unwinnable fourth position in 2019, but was back later in the year when he filled Arthur Sinodinos’s vacancy in a six-year term. Liberal sources cited by Anne Davies of The Guardian suggest Molan’s popularity with the party membership makes him the likely winner.
• Then there were the three seats that were uncontentiously to proceed to a party ballot under the factional deal. Even here there is bad news for the Liberals, with the announcement by moderate-aligned barrister Jane Buncle, the presumed front-runner to take on Zali Steggall in Warringah, that she was withdrawing her nomination. That just leaves conservative-aligned Lincoln Parker, who according to Jim O’Rourke of the Daily Telegraph has “worked in defence research and technology development” and at consulates in the United States. He has also contributed columns to the Epoch Times, the newspaper of China’s suppressed Falun Gong movement, the enthusiasm of which for Donald Trump extended to passing off his tales about voter fraud as fact. As James Campbell noted in the Daily Telegraph, the heat had gone out of the Warringah preselection contest due to a growing sense that victory was beyond the party’s grasp. The other two seats designated for party ballots under the deal are Bennelong and Labor-held Parramatta, on which I have nothing new to relate.