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Former Liberal president tells party’s executive to ‘settle down’

Former Liberal Party president Shane Stone in 2005. AAP/Alan Porritt

Former Liberal president Shane Stone has hit out at party treasurer Philip Higginson for his scathing correspondence complaining about party governance, including problems caused by having a husband and wife in key positions.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a member of the executive to send out a long email giving everyone a spray,” Stone told The Conversation on Wednesday.

“It’s quite unnecessary. What’s achieved by that? Bloody nothing.”

Stone, who held the presidency between 1999 and 2005 and previously was Northern Territory chief minister, also delivered some “advice” to federal executive members. “People need to settle down, and understand their role is to support the government and the leader of the day.”

In two emails sent to executive members at the weekend, Higginson, who was hand-picked by Tony Abbott as honorary treasurer, said he would resign the position “as a result of my concern with the direction the party is heading”.

Higginson attacked the conflict of interest presented by Brian Loughnane being party director and his wife, Peta Credlin, the prime minister’s chief of staff.

“The federal director has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the organisation at all times,” Higginson wrote. “How can this possibly happen when the [chief of staff] to the PM is his wife?

"It immediately brings about cessation of open communication to the federal director, contributes to wooden and unreliable communication and a reluctance towards open and trusting lines of communication and, dare I say it, retribution,” Higginson wrote.

Higginson recommended measures for greater financial transparency and accountability.

But Stone said that if there was something that executive members wanted to know, “you discuss it in the federal executive”. In his day, if people wanted to know things, they were told. He pointed out that the party was not a public company, and said current processes were no different from when Ron Walker and Malcolm Turnbull held the position of treasurer.

Stone also expressed confidence in the way that Loughnane ran the secretariat, and rejected the conflict-of-interest proposition. “I think we’re all grown-ups – people clearly understand the demarcations.”

Stone said he was not now involved on a day-to-day basis but had had dealings with the Abbott office and the secretariat and “never had a sense of checking up or double dealing”.

Credited with being a very good fundraiser himself, Stone admitted it would be challenging for the party to find a new treasurer because no-one wanted to “go out with the begging bowl”. But “someone always steps up”.

Stone declined to be drawn on Abbott’s position, saying the leadership was “a matter for the parliamentary wing”.

Abbott has dismissed the Higginson emails as “a storm in a teacup”, saying if Higginson wanted to resign that was a matter for him.

But Turnbull on Wednesday said transparency and accountability “are very, very important in any organisation”.

Turnbull said the Higginson recommendations seemed “pretty standard recommendations about corporate governance”.

“Phil Higginson is a very experienced company director. He is a corporate governance expert. He’s regarded as an authority in that field, so I’m sure the federal executive will pay very careful attention to his proposals.”

Turnbull said he was satisfied with the level of accountability and transparency when he had been party treasurer.

“There was no financial information that I sought when I was federal treasurer of the party that was not available to me. Clearly some issues have developed in the intervening decade-plus years. We should as a party set a very high standard in accountability and transparency.”

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