Senior figures in the New South Wales Liberal party are increasingly frustrated that its own membership may hobble its chances of re-election, after another woman lost a preselection contest under rules introduced with the backing of the former prime minister Tony Abbott.
On Monday night the state’s roads minister, Natalie Ward, lost a preselection battle for the ultra-safe seat of Davidson to a former Mike Baird staffer, Matt Cross, by 85 votes to 95, under NSW’s one-member-one-vote rules.
The most senior woman in the NSW Liberals and dubbed a future leader of the party by Dominic Perrottet, Ward had been attempting to move from the state’s upper house to replace the retiring speaker, Jonathan O’Dea.
The only contested preselections won by women under the so-called Warringah rules have been contests in which no men were nominated, in the seats of Holsworthy and Vaucluse.
“The problem is that the average voter is a woman in her 30s,” one MP said.
“The average Liberal party member is a bloke in his 60s. Go to any branch meeting and besides a few young Liberals it’s a grey wash.”
While Cross was pressured not to contest for Davidson, he spent years building support in the northern beaches electorate, and won preselection despite Ward enjoying cross-factional support and the public backing of the treasurer, Matt Kean.
On Tuesday the government attempted to put a positive spin on the loss, with Perrottet insisting Ward would remain a “leading light” of the party, while boosting Cross’s credentials for the seat.
“Natalie remains in the upper house, she remains a strong contributor to the team,” the premier said.
He cited an advertisement for a taco brand to emphasise his point, saying: “As they say in the Old El Paso ads, ‘¿por qué no los dos?’ – ‘why not both?’ That’s exactly what we have.”
But female representation on the government’s frontbench shapes as a serious concern for the Coalition leading up to the March state election, and senior MPs and party powerbrokers are growing increasingly frustrated at the effect of the Warringah rules.
Introduced in 2017 to bolster grassroots participation, the rules hobbled the power of factions by introducing a plebiscite of local members in preselections. They also decreased the voting representation from the state executive, from 50% to 25%.
While popular with Liberal members, the rules have not been kind to female candidates so far and have prompted concerns the party is failing to represent the wider public.
Earlier this month Kean, the state’s senior moderate MP, urged his Liberal branch presidents to “get with the program” and support more female preselections.
“We need to ensure that our parliamentary party is reflective of the community that we are wanting to serve,” he said. “Until we are reflective of the community, we can’t expect the community to be voting for us.”
Last year Tim James was picked to replace the former premier Gladys Berejiklian in the north shore seat of Willoughby ahead of the local mayor, Gail Giles-Gidney.
Simon Kennedy defeated the former Michaelia Cash chief of staff Gisele Kapterian in the federal seat of Bennelong, before losing the seat to Labor in the May election.
This month, Nowra businesswoman Jemma Tribe lost in her bid to replace the retiring South Coast MP, Shelley Hancock, to Luke Sikora, while in the seat of Camden, Lara Symkowiak was unsuccessful in her attempt to oust the sitting MP, Peter Sidgreaves.
The Liberal party is also grappling with how it can win back female voters in Victoria after losing Saturday’s state election.
One Victorian Liberal candidate said revelations about other party members turned voters away from the party during the campaign.
“I was hammered by women at prepolling who would come up to me, with the article, saying ‘what is your stance on abortions’?” the candidate said.
The candidate pointed to claims that the upper house candidate Renee Heath was a lifelong member of the City Builders church, and that it had been directed by its global leader to infiltrate the Coalition. The church, which is led by Heath’s parents, is opposed to gay, transgender and reproductive rights. Heath has denied having the same views as her parents.
Another Liberal candidate apologised for “insensitive and inappropriate language” he used to describe First Nations people in audio leaked to the Age in which he also criticised pro-choice arguments.
The former Victorian MP Andrew Olexander, who was expelled from the Liberals in 2005 after speaking against the party, said potential reforms to its preselection process include US primary-style processes to allow any member of the community to vote for a candidate.
Another is to have an internal committee choosing candidates that were more reflective of the wider community.