'This will be Abbott's last term': Liberals call time on former PM as tide turns in Warringah

 smh.com.au  9/16/2018 7:51:28 AM  2

It's understood the 27-year-old former NSW Young Liberals president Alex Dore would have strong support from the increasingly influential moderate faction to take over in the seat. NSW MP Natalie Ward has also been mentioned as a possible option.

Fairfax Media has been told Mr Abbott - who ran unopposed on Friday - was backed by 46 members, while 38 others rejected his renomination to contest next year's federal election. Mr Abbott disputes this and insists he achieved roughly 70 per cent support.

Tony Abbott says he plans to remain in public life for many years to come.

Tony Abbott says he plans to remain in public life for many years to come.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

However in a move described by longtime members as "highly unusual", the results were kept secret, triggering angry scenes where members shouted "disgrace", "transparency is dead", and "release the results".

Fairfax Media understands a senior figure is now considering writing to NSW Liberal Party director Chris Stone to demand the public release of the numbers.

Another senior source said  if Mr Abbott did secure 70 per cent of the vote then he should release the numbers to clear up any doubt, and some of the former prime minister's own backers believe keeping the result secret was a strategic mistake.

On Sunday night, Liberal Party federal president Nick Greiner told the National Wrap program he "can't particularly see why they shouldn't announce the result in any preselection".

The Liberal Party in NSW is dealing with preselection tensions on multiple fronts ahead of next year's federal election, as well as an October 20 byelection in the eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth triggered by Mr Turnbull's resignation from Parliament.

Mr Abbott's close ally, conservative backbencher Craig Kelly, is facing an increasingly tough fight to retain preselection for his Sydney seat of Hughes in the face of a challenge from moderate Kent Johns.

It's understood Mr Abbott was told to expect a protest vote ahead of Friday night's meeting, but appeared surprised by the scale of the backlash.

"I have literally never been to another party meeting like it," a long-term member said of the anger.

"It was the night the base struck back."

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Adding to the complexity around Mr Abbott's future, from 2019 the Liberal Party will move from the current preselection model, where only a small number of members get a vote in who represents the party at an election, to plebiscites, where all 750 members in Warringah would get a say.

Party figures are now predicting the former prime minister's criticisms of Mr Turnbull and positions on same-sex marriage and climate change will fuel a big swing against him at the next election, over and above any general move against the government in neighbouring seats.

But a member who supported Mr Abbott on Friday said he remained a popular local member, was often mobbed by voters in public and would remain the local MP as long as he wanted.

The Liberal primary vote in Warringah dropped nine points at the 2016 election to 51.65 - one its lowest levels since Mr Abbott first won the seat at a 1994 byelection.

Party strategists said a similar swing at next year's poll would make the once safe seat marginal, and did not discount the prospect of a high-profile independent candidate emerging like former Australian Medical Association president Kerryn Phelps in Wentworth.

The popular Northern Beaches Council mayor Michael Regan is viewed as a serious threat should he contest the election.

In a sign Labor intends to capitalise on the disunity in Warringah, the party's candidate Dean Harris has reached at least 90 per cent of the electorate with a letter box campaign ahead of next year's poll.

"Vested interests, outdated ideas and rusted-on ideology have for too long drowned out the voices of local people - and I want to change that," the campaign material reads.

He is also distributing thousands of bumper sticker's titled 'Times Up Tony!', along with a #letsdobetter hashtag.

Mr Turnbull's son Alex told Fairfax Media that Mr Abbott would be "finished" if a moderate independent ran in the seat.

"I think Abbott is hopelessly out of step with his electorate and even Liberal Party members," Mr Turnbull said on Sunday.

A number of government MPs have called on Mr Abbott to retire at the next election for the sake of party unity. Mr Abbott has previously said he has more to contribute to public life.

"I certainly don't intend to retire anytime soon. I certainly think I've got a lot of public life left in me."

A spokesman for the NSW Liberal Party has said Mr Abbott was "successfully endorsed by a comfortable majority" but has declined to release the numbers.

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