Former Howard Government minister Peter Reith took a gamble when running a reform agenda for the Liberal federal president not long from an election. He lost the punt but only just. The race raised larger questions for the federal party. Did it want to preserve the status quo under its incumbent Alan Stockdale, or start rocking the boat?
With only one vote separating both candidates, the weekend’s result suggests deeper issues remain and the Liberal party may well need to return to the issue of party reform.
The vote also highlighted that strangely enough, the lack of factions in the Liberal party may actually become a problem for the party.
Instead of formal factions its members tend to be fluid and gravitate around potential leaders. This is quite different to Labor’s approach where factions play a significant role in the party’s operation.
Many Liberals wear the party’s lack of factionalism as a badge of honour, arguing that notions of democracy are enhanced without factions.
Tony Abbott reportedly supported Mr Reith’s candidature, but changed his mind at the last minute and voted for the incumbent. Had the factional lines been more clearly determined, Abbott’s vote may have already been known and Mr Reith may have decided to not stand for election.
Clearly such manoeuvrings have the potential to destabilise the organisation.
The reports of former Howard Government minister and retiring senator Nick Minchin being extremely active in supporting Mr Stockdale also show that while a lack of factions may notionally enhance democracy, it may not stop powerful figures from exerting influence on the Party.
But to get a greater sense of what the race for the presidency was about, we should consider the role of Party president. The Liberal Party is structured so that the extra-parliamentary wing does not have the ability to place binding policy decisions on the parliamentary wing.
In effect, the parliamentary wing is responsible for creating policy while the extra-parliamentary wing is responsible for fundraising, running the organisation, preselecting candidates and overseeing election campaigns.
The extra-parliamentary wing is also influential in choosing the federal director, currently Brian Loughnane, who has overseen one election win since he became federal director in 2003. So the recent battle for presidency was really concerned with the party’s operation rather than policy direction.
With this in mind, the party was ultimately asked to pass judgement on its recent federal election losses. On many levels, the Liberal Party did extremely well to almost win government after just one term in 2010.
But the key word is “almost”, and there would be concerns about how the party couldn’t get over the line last year.
It’s not uncommon for parties to go through a process of bloodletting after an election loss, and in many ways Mr Reith, by challenging an incumbent, was asking the party to decide on whether it supported the current regime or whether a new start was needed.
The implication of Mr Reith’s reformist agenda was that the party would undergo some significant changes. Clearly the actions of Mr Minchin, and others who opposed Mr Reith, were designed to maintain the current state of affairs and retain the crop of political talent within the party.
Mr Reith’s strong media presence and high public profile also became a double edged sword as his opponents were quick to argue that he would become a distraction. This would not be welcome at a time where the party appears to be in an election winning lead according to opinion polls.
The battle for the Liberal Party’s presidency was therefore a referendum on whether the party was confident it had the organisational leadership to return it to government.
The result suggests that although the party said “yes”, it was hardly a resounding victory for the status quo. We may see party reform in the Liberal party return yet.