Tony Nutt, former close advisor to John Howard, is set to become the new federal director of the Liberal Party after Brian Loughnane confirmed on Thursday that he will soon leave the job.
Loughnane, who is married to Peta Credlin, the controversial former chief-of-staff to Tony Abbott, has been campaign director for the Coalition in four federal elections.
He said in a statement that before the last election he had told both Abbott and the then-president of the party, Alan Stockdale, that the 2013 campaign would probably be his last as federal director.
Loughnane’s quitting has been expected – he and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have had a poor relationship.
Nutt is currently the director of the New South Wales division of the party. He was formerly senior political adviser and later chief-of-staff in the Howard office.
A smooth changeover to a new director in the NSW division will be vital given the importance of that state in next year’s federal election.
Loughnane said he planned to return to the business sector – he previously worked for Shell – after his resignation takes place “by early next year”. He said this timeframe would allow for the appointment of a new director and a handover on the detailed planning undertaken for the next election campaign.
Now was the appropriate time for a changeover, “with the recent changes in the parliamentary leadership and the consequent need to review our planning for the next campaign”.
Loughnane said he had run twice the number of campaigns of anyone, Liberal or Labor, state or federal, for more than 30 years. “I am particularly proud of the strength of our primary vote over those elections – the result of the careful application of a considered strategy,” he said.
Turnbull said Loughnane had been “an outstanding federal director”. “Lucy and I wish Brian and his wife Peta Credlin every success in their future endeavours.”
Liberal federal president Richard Alston said Loughnane had told him many months ago that he was keen to move on when the time was right. “The change in parliamentary leadership provides the perfect opportunity for renewal,” Alston said. In his 12 years as director Loughnane had run a highly professional operation, Alston added.
Former federal treasurer of the party Philip Higginson, who earlier this year attacked the Loughnane-Credlin nexus as a conflict of interest, said Loughnane “like all of us is human, and to err is human”. He thought Loughnane had probably learned a lot in the last six to nine months.
Higginson, who was previously very critical of the handling of financial matters in the party, told the ABC on Thursday that there needed to be better financial and organisational governance, “so that we can look our donors in the face, our voters in the face, our members of the party in the face – and I know the new PM understands this a whole lot better than the previous PM”.
He said that his highlighting of the Credlin-Loughnane nexus had been a “wake-up call to most people”.
Nutt has been in the Turnbull office working on the transition. His expected shift to the federal director’s job is one of several moves to bring former Howard staffers into the core Turnbull team. Arthur Sinodinos, former Howard chief-of-staff and now a senator, is in the key frontbench role of cabinet secretary. Howard’s longtime senior media advisor Tony O'Leary is working part-time in the Prime Minister’s Office.