NSW Liberal Party members have voted overwhelming in favour of a push by allies of former prime minister Tony Abbott to give all local members a vote in state and federal preselections.
At an extraordinary party convention at Rosehill racecourse on Sunday, more than 1200 attendees voted 748 to 476 to support the so-called Warringah motion put forward by the federal electorate conference in Mr Abbott’s seat of Warringah.
The decision is a major victory for Mr Abbott and his key allies, Walter Villatora, who is president of the Warringah FEC, and retired major general Jim Molan.
The motion will now go to the state council, the NSW party’s supreme policy-making body, where it will require the support of 60 per cent of delegates to change the NSW Liberal constitution.
However, there are predictions that, even if it is passed there, it will only do so with significant amendments such as the inclusion of anti-branch-stacking measures such as a party activity test.
A former party member and long-time advocate for plebiscites, John Ruddick, had previously warned of a split in the Liberals should the Warrigah motion not be supported.
A group within the party aligned with Mr Abbott’s hard right faction, the Democratic Reform Movement, has been pushing a Warringah FEC motion to introduce plebiscites whereby every local party member would get a vote.
At present, voting is restricted to branch representatives and some party officials.
The ruling left and centre right factions, which currently control the state executive, have consistently claimed the Warringah reform would open the door to large-scale branch stacking by the right faction.
They supported compromise motions put by federal MPs Alex Hawke and Julian Leeser that would introduce plebiscites but with strict safeguards such as a member activity test and a requirement for three or four years’ membership.
Last week, Fairfax Media reported accusations that those backing the Warringah motion were trying to “stack” the convention, including by paying the $150 registration fee.
It emerged that one person spent up to $13,500 funding the registration of as many as 90 Liberal members to attend the convention sparking accusations they are trying to “buy” the party.
The convention had been billed as the next potential flash point between Mr Abbott and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the direction of the Liberal Party and the government.
But on Saturday Mr Abbott applauded Mr Turnbull for offering “unequivocal support” for his position.
“As the party of freedom and of the individual, we must give every member a say,” Mr Turnbull told the Party Futures Convention on Saturday.
“It is fundamental.”
In 2014, a panel commissioned by then prime minister Mr Abbott and chaired by former prime minister John Howard recommended a move to a plebiscite model.
The panel recommended introduction of a plebiscite system for choosing lower house candidates whereby all financial party members in an electorate would be eligible to vote.
It said participants must have been party members for at least two years.
There was a hitch when the electronic voting system crashed for almost half an hour just before 3pm, which meant the votes had to be cast again.