Secret files kept on political recruits: Simon Fontana. Photo: Anthony Johnson
Young Liberal political operatives have been keeping secret records of ostensibly casual conversations with party members at social functions and reporting back to senior political staff in a bid to snare factional recruits.
E-mails obtained by The Sun-Herald reveal the operatives took notes over the past three years at events such as the annual Young Liberal ball which were used to identify “high potential” recruits for the party's centre right faction and its political enemies.
“Tonight is the most important night of year,” Young Liberal vice-president Tobias Lehmann wrote in an email to 20 factional operatives in March 2013, equal parts pep talk and spy manual, before a new members' night.
“Its critical to identify and start to factionalise them ASAP,” he wrote.
Instructions ranged from a dozen suggested conversation topics for teasing out political leanings to a reminder to observe body language:
“Please don't everyone ask the same questions to every person use a mix of them, as the different report will create the complete picture. Make it a conversation! Not an interview.”
One request for intelligence at a post-federal budget function in 2012 was said to have generated 90 replies and a “great deal of information”.
“Its best practice to write your report as you go during the evening, this way everything is fresh in your mind and you don't have to write it while hungover,” Mr Lehmann wrote. “After you finish chatting to someone write up the notes then and there and then move onto the next person.
“Everyone is expected to provide a report and, Simon [Fontana] and I need them within 48 hours."
Then Young Liberal president Simon Fontana is currently the chief of staff to Planning Minister Pru Goward. Until stepping down this year, he was a member of the NSW Liberals’ all-powerful state executive committee along with the Premier. Mr Lehmann now works as an adviser to upper house whip Peter Phelps.
Neither Mr Fontana nor Mr Lehmann responded to detailed questions.
Operatives were told to go so far as to shut down any conversations between new members and their factional opponents on the party's left and right: “What starts as a chat with a Grouper [member of the left], turns into an internship in Joe Hockey's office, and then that member is as good as lost”.
At the Young Liberal ball in 2012 intelligence was emailed to the group as the night went on.
“Just met Matt and Marie,” one said. “He just started up a business to try on clothes before you buy them online. She is a nanny and a dress maker. He is more keen than her because he likes to talk about business policy.”
Young Liberal branches have the same input into state and federal preselection conferences as any normal branch. They make up about 15 per cent of the all 370 NSW Liberal branches and a significant political power base.
One ex-Young Liberal branch president said he and others were asked to share information on members’ political leanings with a NSW parliamentarian preparing for a preselection battle.
Mr Fontana was installed as Young Liberal president after federal MP and NSW centre right factional boss Alex Hawke swung support behind him.
The Liberal party is locked in debate over a proposal by former Prime Minister John Howard to allow the direct election of lower house candidates. The move is opposed by the party’s dominant centre right and left factions.
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HOW TO FACTIONALISE A YOUNG LIBERAL
A ‘solid’ is someone whose factional loyalty is assured: do not waste time talking to them
A HIPO is a “high potential’ recruit, or someone who appears ripe for induction into a faction
‘H’ the name of the centre-right faction.
Group is the name given to the left wing faction.
Taliban is the name given to the right wing faction.