Peter Dutton has warned the New South Wales Liberal party it is “completely unacceptable” to preselect candidates on the eve of an election.
The opposition leader gave that message to the NSW branch executive at a meeting on Friday evening, urging it to avoid a repeat of divisions before the 2022 poll, when nine candidates were preselected just days before the election was called.
The late selection of candidates hampered Liberal efforts to retain North Sydney, lost by MP Trent Zimmerman, and gain winnable seats including Parramatta and Warringah, where candidate Katherine Deves caused controversy over her anti-trans advocacy about women’s participation in sport.
Dutton told reporters in Dayboro, Queensland, on Sunday that he had told the Liberal executive New South Wales “is a crucial state for us”.
“We can win the next election when you go through the winnable seats in New South Wales, Victoria, in Queensland and WA and in Tasmania – there is a huge opportunity for us,” he said.
“But we have to get our act together in New South Wales and that’s important for the re-election of the Perrottet government as well.”
“I was very clear in my advice to the New South Wales division that it’s completely unacceptable to be preselecting candidates on the eve of an election.”
Dutton said he wanted “candidates pre-selected earlier so that they can be out in the community, listening to their constituents, working on issues that are important to locals”.
Some Liberals have blamed Alex Hawke, former prime minister Scott Morrison’s representative on the NSW executive, for the delay, due to his absence from candidate vetting meetings.
The failure to finalise candidates precipitated a federal intervention, and appointment of a three-person committee, allowing Morrison and the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, greater say in preselections.
In April, Morrison defended the intervention, which he said had protected now deputy leader Sussan Ley from a preselection challenge and helped other women and multicultural candidates run for parliament.
But the intervention sparked fierce recriminations in the party, including an unsuccessful election-eve lawsuit.
The NSW Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells chose budget night to brand Morrison an “autocrat [and] a bully who has no moral compass” and accuse Hawke of “corrupt antics” over the preselection, in which she failed to gain a winnable position on the Senate ticket.
The Liberal senator Andrew Bragg is now pushing for rule changes to prevent a repeat of the NSW debacle, including publication of a clear timetable for preselections and allowing them to proceed without the leader’s representative in the nomination review process. The “Sydney motion” will be considered by the party’s annual general meeting in July.
At a Sydney Institute event on Tuesday the Liberal senator Hollie Hughes blamed the NSW division’s dysfunction on the expansion of the executive to 29 members, with a requirement to get 90% agreement for motions.
Hughes said court cases on internal party matters “bring the party into disrepute” and had contributed to late preselections.
“There wasn’t as much campaign preparation as we would have liked to have seen,” she said.
Hughes said she was “bemused” by Bragg’s Sydney motion, warning against an approach she likened to “tacking things on like a Christmas tree”.
“I don’t think [the nomination review process] is the key part of why we didn’t get to our candidates when we should have.
“We had candidates wanting to run, not wanting to run, we couldn’t get people to nominate in certain seats, people were pulling out.”