Federal Politics

Mackellar preselection: Bronwyn Bishop digs her heels in during the messy battle over her future

If 2015 had been her annus horribilis, Bronwyn Bishop wasn't showing it.

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The speakership of Bronwyn Bishop

During her time as Speaker Bronwyn Bishop smashed the record for MPs thrown out of a single Question Time.

After 22 years as the member for Mackellar, Bishop's Christmas drinks party has become a tradition among the Liberal Party set of Sydney's upper-northern beaches.

About 150 of her closest local political supporters turned up to her Newport home for the annual soiree on December 8.

Former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop sits on the backbench.
Former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop sits on the backbench. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

In her almost three decades in Parliament - which includes seven years as a senator prior to entering the House of Representatives via a 1994 byelection - 2015 had been the worst for the recognisable Liberal with the bulletproof beehive, no question.

Bishop, who had once been touted as a future Liberal prime minister, had lost the third-highest office in the land - the Speakership - in embarrassing circumstances.

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Dug in behind her, Tony Abbott sustained three full weeks of political bombardment over her $5000 helicopter transfer to a Liberal fundraiser in Geelong before Bishop waved the white flag, apologised, repaid the chopper bill and, eventually, stood down.

In her Christmas speech, she addressed the elephant in the room directly, telling the Liberal faithful she had been "exonerated" by the Department of Finance over the chopper flight.

Bronwyn Bishop during her time as Speaker.
Bronwyn Bishop during her time as Speaker. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

According to one Mackellar Liberal, "choppergate" wasn't even the chief concern among her notoriously conservative local power base anyway.

"They massively have the shits with her for voting for Turnbull," the party source told the Sydney Morning Herald a day after the event.

Bronwyn Bishop arrives by helicopter at a golf course for a Liberal fundraiser.
Bronwyn Bishop arrives by helicopter at a golf course for a Liberal fundraiser. Photo: Twitter @neilremeeus

But if anyone present thought this would be Bishop's final Christmas as their MP, they were soon put straight. She planned to bat on for another three years, the 73-year-old told her guests.

Among the reasons she gave was that her long years of political experience could be useful in government during a time of global terror. The subtext being that, with the removal of Abbott as prime minister  - which, ironically, she had helped facilitate with her party room vote - Malcolm Turnbull would need some genuine conservatives keeping an eye on national security.

Bronwyn Bishop and Tony Abbott in happier times.
Bronwyn Bishop and Tony Abbott in happier times. 

It's fair to say the sparkling Pittwater peninsula does not rank among the hot seats of global terror but, by all reports, the Mackellar rank and file embraced the speech and her wish to serve another term.

But on the left and the right of the Liberal Party machine, the groans could be heard from Newport to Canberra.

Among a raft of delicate preselections in safe NSW seats, Mackellar would be the toughest to engineer a factional solution to retiring Bishop in the name of renewal.

Across Sydney in the seat of Berowra, Philip Ruddock, another veteran Liberal warrior, 72, had been trailing his coat and making similar noises about going around again.

Back in December, Liberal powerbrokers were already discussing the need for senior Liberals - figures like Treasurer Scott Morrison and John Howard confidant Arthur Sinodinos -  to talk elders like Ruddock and Bishop into bowing out.

Senator Bill Heffernan and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells were also on the renewal list and a question mark hung over Mr Abbott's parliamentary future at that point.

Add to that, the NSW redistribution had tipped half the voters in Macarthur into neighbouring Hume, setting up a flashpoint between Macarthur MP Russell Matheson and up-and-comer Angus Taylor in Hume, and a rumoured bid by the moderates to roll conservative Craig Kelly in Hughes.

One way or another, all factional standoffs had been settled by the close of preselections on Friday.

Mr Taylor and Senator Fierravanti-Wells were promoted out of danger by Turnbull - under a convention that ministers should be safe from challenge - and the dogs were called off in Hughes to keep the peace.

The big difference between Mr Ruddock's circumstances and Mrs Bishop's was the fundamental currency of politics: the numbers.

While Mrs Bishop has her branches locked in behind her, in Berowra, the forces behind Mr Ruddock's heir apparent, Julian Leeser, warned they had the votes to take him out if he stayed and fought.

In the end, Mr Ruddock accepted the created post of Australia's 'Special Envoy for Human Rights'.

That leaves Mackellar as the only full-blooded preselection battle among the safe seats in NSW.

According to factional powerbrokers, they are staying out of it.

Mrs Bishop retains the backing of two key figures of the centre right faction, Assistant Minister to the Treasurer Alex Hawke and former Liberal state president and lobbyist Nick Campbell.

Despite her forgettable 2015, Mrs Bishop remains revered and not just for her two decades in Mackellar. During her time in the Senate, she worked tirelessly to break the stranglehold of the ALP over working class western Sydney.

She is credited with building much of the Liberal infrastructure, building branches and gaining the support of ethnic groups, that allowed Howard to win over the "battlers" of the outer suburbs in 1996.  

The dominant left faction, which is in a mostly harmonious marriage with the centre right, has so far made no trouble in Mackellar. Besides, as one senior moderate put it "why start a fight you can't win?".

But on the ground, the challenge will take all of Mrs Bishop's long political experience to prevail.

One of Abbott's closest confidants, Walter Villatora, the former prime minister's Warringah campaign manager, will fly the flag for the hard right and hope to capitalise on any simmering resentment over Bishop's decision to betray Abbott when his leadership hung by a thread.

Jason Falinski, a member of the moderate faction, appears to have a level of support and will hope any factional truce breaks down before a vote.

Amanda Rawnsley, a senior adviser to NSW Family and Community Services Minister Brad Hazzard, former long-time northern beaches policeman David Walton, stockbroker Campbell Welsh, Street Mission founder Alan Clarke and local school teacher Vicky McGahey are expected to join the contest.

On Thursday, Bishop took another blow when long-time backer Alan Jones put his support behind a former Wallaby, Bill Calcraft, who he described as a "class act". "Let me say bluntly, there could be no better candidate," Jones wrote in a letter of recommendation to preselectors.

If she survives preselection, Bishop will likely get her wish: to retire on her own terms in 2019 with the stench of choppergate a distant memory. 

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