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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Michael McGowan

NSW Liberal MPs face potential preselection battles amid a frontbench exodus

Melanie Gibbons speaking in parliament
The member for Holsworthy, Melanie Gibbons, is fighting a Liberal party preselection battle to retain her seat. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

The New South Wales government faces the possibility of losing two sitting Liberal MPs in bitter preselection contests as it deals with an ever-growing list of senior ministers departing at the next election.

Melanie Gibbons and Peter Sidgreaves, the MPs for Holsworthy and Camden, are each facing potential challengers from within the Liberal party ahead of the March poll, and could be set to join the growing list of government MPs heading for the exit doors.

Gibbons faces an uphill battle in retaining her seat from former Liverpool deputy mayor Tina Ayyad, who Guardian Australia understands is determined to nominate despite pressure within the party to withdraw to head off an ugly internal battle.

It would mark another blow for Dominic Perrottet’s government ahead of the election, amid a swathe of resignations from senior ministers.

The health and transport ministers, Brad Hazzard and David Elliott, this week said they plan to retire in March, bringing the number of current and former frontbenchers not contesting the election to eight.

The list includes current ministers Rob Stokes, Victor Dominello and Geoff Lee, as well as former frontbenchers Melinda Pavey, Gabrielle Upton and Shelley Hancock.

Between them, they have about 112 years of parliamentary experience.

With the midterm departures of Gladys Berejiklian, John Barilaro and Andrew Constance and the retirement of speaker Johnathan O’Dea and backbench MPs such as Stephen Bromhead, the government will have lost more than two centuries of experience.

Gibbons – who announced last October that she planned to resign in order to run in the federal seat of Hughes, only to be blocked amid the factional machinations which saw preselections plagued by delays – is seen as a potential future minister.

But Ayyad, the wife of the current Liverpool mayor, Ned Mannoun, is popular locally, and would benefit from a change in Holsworthy’s boundaries that saw a reallocation of branches.

Sidgreaves, a first-term MP, is likely to face at least one challenger: the former Camden mayor Lara Symkowiak. Sidgreaves sparked controversy in his own local branches in 2019 after he was the sole nominee for the seat to replace his factional ally, Chris Patterson.

At the time Patterson did not announce his retirement until after nominations closed, and acted as a referee for Sidgreaves on his nomination form. It led to the president of the Camden Young Liberals, Aaron Colley, to complain of an “outrageous bypassing of democracy”.

Factional manoeuvring is playing out in a series of preselections. In Pittwater, the families and communities minister, Natasha Maclaren-Jones, faces a difficult challenge to win preselection from moderate-backed Northern Beaches councillor Rory Amon.

Maclaren-Jones, from the centre-right, declared she wanted to move from the upper house to fill the vacancy left by retiring infrastructure minister Rob Stokes. But senior party sources told the Guardian she faced an uphill battle to win the seat in an area dominated by the moderate faction.

The party is desperate to avoid a saga similar to the buildup to the federal vote in May, which saw a series of preselections delayed due to factional infighting. But the so-called Warringah rules, championed by the former prime minister Tony Abbott, created a one-person-one-vote preselection system designed to increase local representation.

Those rules have meant sitting MPs such as Elliott have resigned rather than face the likelihood of losing a factional preselection challenge.

One senior Liberal source said the rules, which set a much higher bar for the state executive to intervene, had hobbled the power of head office factional players.

“It’s people playing battleships in the bath tub,” the source said.

“You have figures shifting people around in the office in Sydney and it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what is happening in the branches where we have to do the local preselections.”

Perrottet has sought to characterise the departures as a positive, saying retirements were a “natural part of politics”.

“It is important that new blood comes through,” Perrottet said this week. “It’s good for renewal.”

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