How Scott Morrison’s shattering defeat has fractured Liberal Party factions

Anthony Albanese’s thumping win in the 2022 election did not just boot Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party from office.

It also prompted the beginnings of a seismic realignment of the federal Liberal Party’s loose system of factional and philosophical alliances.

Two years ago, this newspaper published a guide of who was who in the Labor and Liberal parties’ factions. A month after the ALP’s election win, the Labor factions piece was updated.

The Liberal Party’s factions are not like Labor’s. While the ALP’s factions enforce an iron discipline on their members and play a crucial role in the formation of policy, the parceling out of ministries and parliamentary committee chairmanships, and even who gets to join overseas delegations, the Liberals’ groups are looser.

The 2022 election smashed the Centre Right faction that coalesced around Scott Morrison and Alex Hawke.

The 2022 election smashed the Centre Right faction that coalesced around Scott Morrison and Alex Hawke. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Personal loyalty to a leader or senior minister or shadow minister as well as policy and philosophical leanings are more to the fore. Over time, it is more common for Liberal MPs to move from one faction or group to another, as their views on policy change or if doing so will ensure they are preselected once again for their seat.

In the 1980s and 1990s the party could be broadly divided into “wets”, who favoured more progressive social policy and a bigger role for the government, and economic “dries” who focused on championing free market economics.

That has changed significantly, with today’s Moderates socially progressive and advocates of free market economics, the National Right conservatives more focused on social issues and national security while the Centrists and Centre Right groups fall somewhere in the middle.

There are further sub-groups, too, that reflect MPs interests: a rural and regional Liberals group, a veterans group, a prayer group that meets in parliament on Tuesday evenings, a new metropolitan Liberals group and, of course, the Monkey Pod lunch group, named after a table in a Parliament House meeting room made of monkey pod hard wood and led by Dutton.

The end of Morrison’s prime ministership and the bitter factional infighting in the NSW division, the home of the Centre Right, has smashed the faction.

Unpacking what has happened to the Liberal Party’s factions in the wake of a defeat that meant the party lost 18 seats – nine Moderates, five members of the Centre Right group, three members of the National Right conservatives and one unaligned MP – has been more complex.

To report this story, this masthead spoke to 53 of the 66 Liberal MPs – many more than once – in the federal parliament. The other 13 were contacted for comment.

The end of Morrison’s prime ministership and the bitter factional infighting in the NSW division, the home of the Centre Right, has smashed the faction. In the last term, it was the largest group, with 32 of 91 Liberal MPs in it.

Now the Centre Right is a rump of just six people.

Another 10 MPs said they now identified themselves as centrists and five of those people had been in the formerly powerful Centre Right group, which had coalesced around Morrison as leader and factional organiser Alex Hawke. This underscores how Liberal factional politics is more fluid than in Labor, and the role that personal loyalty to the leader plays in the Liberal Party.

Another four members of the Centre Right group have moved themselves to the unaligned column, two have moved to the Moderates and six into the National Right, which is headed up by Peter Dutton.

It’s important to note, too, that placing an MP in a particular column does not mean they are either for or against Dutton as leader.

These factional groups should not be used to hazard a guess about whether Dutton would have the numbers in the event of a party room ballot: the party is not about to replace Dutton as leader and the veteran Queenslander draws support from across the party room.

The Liberals are not about to replace Dutton as leader – the veteran Queenslander draws support from across the party room.

The Liberals are not about to replace Dutton as leader – the veteran Queenslander draws support from across the party room.Credit:Illustration: Richard Giliberto.

For example, James McGrath and Ted O’Brien appear in the unaligned column, but are both strong supporters of Dutton while Karen Andrews, who is in the same column, is not close to the Liberal leader. Jason Wood, a Centrist from Victoria, is another example of a Dutton loyalist in a different group.

Similarly, Simon Birmingham, Marise Payne, Sussan Ley and Paul Fletcher are all leading moderates but are all, also, close to Dutton.

Dutton’s group of National Right conservatives is now the biggest faction in the party with 27 members in the 66 member party room, but it ranges from MPs such as Scott Buchholz and Wendy Askew, who have little interest in factional politics, the protectionist Gerard Rennick, to James Paterson, a libertarian and security hawk, through to MPs such as Tony Pasin and Phillip Thompson, who are spear carriers and factional enforcers for the leader.

The depleted list of Moderates in the party room will make depressing reading for some – the group has dropped from 22 members in the last parliament to just 14, even after gaining a few new members.

Like the National Right, there are layers to the moderates, too. Birmingham, Payne and Fletcher are leaders of the old guard, while James Stevens, Angie Bell, Jane Hume and Andrew Bragg are the members of the much-depleted Moderates’ new guard which had included Jason Falinski, Tim Wilson, Fiona Martin, Dave Sharma, Trevor Evans, Trent Zimmerman and Katie Allen — all lost their seats in May 2022.

There are further complications, too – senators Linda Reynolds, Paul Scarr and Andrew McLachlan all see themselves as Centrists and are listed as such, but all of them are claimed by other members of the Moderates, who point out that the trio have attended the group’s “Black Hand” dinner, which has been running since the 1980s.

The emergence of the Centrists is the most striking development. This is not a formally organised faction and Dan Tehan is not the leader – he and Anne Ruston are the two most senior members of the group, but in reality it is simply a grouping that did not feel comfortable being placed in any other faction.

Philosophically, their world view is much like the Centre Right – more economically dry than the National Right and more socially conservative than the Moderates – but deliberately distinct from the NSW-led Centre Right. None of Centrists belong to the prayer group, either, whereas four of the six members of the Centre Right do.

There is a second important detail to note about the Centrists, which is that five of its 12 members are Victorians including new MPs Zoe McKenzie, Keith Wolahan and Aaron Violi. (Roshena Campbell, if she had won Aston, would likely have been in this group, too.)

The 2022 election resulted in the defeat of the Liberal’s leading Victorian, Josh Frydenberg, as well as the loss of Tim Wilson and Gladys Liu, the retirement of Greg Hunt, Kevin Andrews and Tony Smith, and the later loss of Alan Tudge.

The Victorian division has been in a state of flux – arguably too focused on personalities, whereas in NSW and South Australia ideology dominates. In the Centrists, there are the beginnings of a realignment in a division that has gone from being a powerhouse to an election-losing machine.

Understanding the factions and the philosophies that underpin them allows one to anticipate how the Liberal Party will arrive at a particular policy position and where they will land.


On the proposed Voice to parliament, for example, the factional groupings make clear that at most, 10 MPs – all but a couple in the Moderate faction – support the proposal, which means it was never likely the party would embrace a Yes vote in the referendum.

After licking their wounds for 12 months, the realignment of the Liberal Party’s factional loyalties has taken shape, giving order to a much-reduced party room.

Now it needs to formulate a coherent policy agenda if it is to have any chance of returning to government after just one term in opposition, which history shows will be a much tougher task.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

Source link