Scott Morrison has ordered the Liberal Party to establish a confidential and rigorous complaints process to help attract quality candidates, after marginal seat holder Ann Sudmalis declared she would not contest the next election.
Ms Sudmalis, who holds the NSW seat of Gilmore by just 0.7 per cent, is the latest woman to leave the Coalition’s already-diminished ranks.
Unlike Julia Banks, who is deserting her Victorian marginal seat of Chisholm over the leadership fiasco and bullying, Ms Sudmalis, who voted for Malcolm Turnbull, is quitting due to local issues.
She cited a long-running war with local state Liberal MP Gareth Ward and “a slow, steady, aggravating and annoying process” of undermining, branch stacking and leaks against her.
The final straw was when she recently lost control of her local federal electoral conference (FEC) when it was stacked by forces aligned to Mr Ward.
While Ms Sudmalis believed she was still likely to win her preselection against challenger Grant Schultz, she could not work with the “inexperienced and hostile” people stacked into her FEC.
“I can’t work with the team there any more, they don’t know the electorate well, they don’t know how to campaign.”
She also lashed the NSW Liberal Party for leaving her hanging rather than getting on with her preselection.
Mr Morrison, who can ill-afford to risk losing any more seats, failed to convince Ms Sudmalis to change her mind on Monday morning.
He said Ms Sudmalis has raised genuine concerns “regarding her treatment in her local FEC within the NSW division of the Liberal Party”.
“This is in addition to complaints I have received from other colleagues about processes in the party’s organisational wing.”
Consequently, he has asked the party’s federal executive “to consider how they will take steps to ensure there is a rigorous and confidential process to deal with concerns and complaints from party members, including MPs”.
Headache for government
Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer said the process must also be independent.
MPs with internal complaints such as the bullying allegations stemming from the leadership fiasco, will still complain to the whip. The new process will deal with organisational matters.
Mr Morrison indicated he wanted Ms Sudmalis replaced by a woman but has not stuck his neck out, as he did when he asked for a female candidate to replace Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth and was rebuked by preselectors who chose Dave Sharma.
He demanded the federal executive develop a “concrete” plan on how to attract “outstanding men and women” but “I continue to make it clear that I want to see more women in the Federal Parliament”.
Ms Sudmalis stressed her decision had nothing to do with Mr Morrison who she described as “a very dear friend and “a very good man”.
Her departure, however, is a headache for the struggling government.
Already, Ms Banks has announced she is quitting at the election and Craig Laundy is expected not to run in his marginal western Sydney seat of Reid.
With Ms Sudmalis also going, combined with the net effect of recent electoral redistributions, the Coalition could begin the next election campaign with a notional 72 seats out of 151.
That will drop to 71 if the Coalition loses the October byelection for Mr Turnbull’s seat of Wentworth.
Ms Sudmalis said she sent Mr Morrison a letter last week informing him she wanted to withdraw her nomination for preselection. He refused to open it as he tried to talk her around.
On Sunday, the same day Mr Morrison dismissed reports surrounding Ms Sudmalis as “media speculation”, he opened the letter.
“It’s difficult for Scott,’ Ms Sudmalis said.
“Last week he did not want to open that letter. It stayed unopened until yesterday afternoon.”