A shock protest vote against Tony Abbott’s endorsement in his longheld seat of Warringah is being used by local branch members as a signal that the former prime minister must make the next parliamentary term his last or risk being abandoned by the party.
The secret ballot conducted on Friday has not been released, despite calls for the result to be made public, but The Australian understands at least 27 of about 93 votes went against Mr Abbott. Some sources at the meeting suggested there were as many of 38 votes against Mr Abbott. The former prime minister conceded a vote of 30 per cent against him.
Liberal members in the seat said the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull had damaged Mr Abbott and the preselection process — held several weeks ago and in which Mr Abbott was the sole nomination — would have been contested if it was held after the August 24 coup.
The Australian has also confirmed that two informal votes were lodged in the ballot conducted by the executive of the electorate’s 19 branches as reflected in May, before elections for new office bearers were held.
A second meeting to hold a ballot for the office bearers of the Warringah Federal Electorate Conference, which saw Walter Villatora replaced as president by former Woolworths chief executive Roger Corbett, was also held on Friday night at the Balgowlah RSL in Seaforth.
This vote was conducted by the new executive of the seat’s 19 branches, which reflected substantial growth in the Young Liberal branches in Manly and Mosman. Two new vice-presidents were elected, including long-term popular branch member Lee Furlong, who beat Mr Villatora by 60 votes to 44, and former young Liberal president of NSW Alex Dore.
Multiple sources said if the new executive of the 19 Warringah branches had voted on Mr Abbott’s endorsement, it was “highly likely” the party could have toppled the former prime minister’s hold on Warringah and forced the preselection to be reopened.
“The two Young Liberal branches had grown exponentially to have much greater impact on the second meeting,” one source said. “If the same people had have voted on Tony’s endorsement, he wouldn’t have got through.
“There was such a high protest vote that people now think Tony will lose the general election in Warringah. This shows that it is Tony’s last term. People are very upset with the leadership spill.”
There is also an expectation that Mr Abbott will have to mount a stronger local campaign at the next election, given his primary vote dropped to 51.65 per cent in 2016 from 60.9 per cent at the 2013 election when he delivered government to the Liberals.
Mr Abbott strongly disputed suggestions that up to 38 people voted against his endorsement amid speculation of nine informal votes and only 46 votes in his favour. Mr Abbott said he won roughly 70 per cent of the vote, a party spokesman telling The Australian: “Mr Abbott was endorsed with a comfortable majority” — an acknowledgment of a protest vote of 30 per cent.
Some local branch members are outraged that the result of the endorsement ballot has not been made public, with former senator and party elder Chris Puplick, who participated in the vote, asking for the numbers at the meeting after Mr Abbott was endorsed.
The request was denied and The Australian understands the vote was not released during the previous endorsement meeting ahead of the 2016 doubledissolution election.
Under rule changes, the next preselection process would be thrown open to any member of a branch in the Warringah FEC who has been a member for at least two years, expanding the potential voters from a field of about 100 to 700.
Some Liberal insiders say this would work against Mr Abbott by giving the Young Liberal branches, which are larger than other branches, a controlling share of the plebiscite model.