‘Worse than Game of Thrones red wedding’: Liberal MPs face axe before federal election

John Alexander, the member for Bennelong, pictured with former PM Tony Abbott and local newspaper proprietor John Booth, who was awarded a ”matehood”. Photo: Nick Moir Philip Ruddock is the party’s longest-serving MP. Photo: Andrew Meares

Stalwart and non-factional Senator Bill Heffernan is also in factional sights. Photo: Andrew Meares

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A radical factional hitlist has been drawn up that would see more than half-a-dozen high profile federal MPs in NSW face preselection challenges before this year’s election.

“It’s threatening to put the Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding scene in the shade,” said one senior member of the NSW party.

Sources from all three factions of the NSW Liberal party have confirmed plans are underway for widespread challenges from the party’s dominant left faction and its centre-right. MPs including John Alexander (Bennelong), Senator Bill Heffernan and Philip Ruddock (Berowra) are in the sights of challengers.

Party sources said it appeared increasingly likely party elders Heffernan and Ruddock would retire rather than face challenges.

A senior Liberal source said the party’s Left was now eyeing the seat of Bennelong, won back from Labor by Mr Alexander in 2010. A source on the Right, which would likely back Mr Alexander, questioned whether it would succeed but said it appeared moves against the MP were being made.

Mr Alexander is not aligned to either faction.

“I am not a candidate,” said local left winger and councillor Craig Chung. “I don’t know who is saying that [but] I suspect are others are trying to cover their own challenge”.

The party is also alive with rumours that NSW factional boss Jai Rowell is backing an audacious bid to depose mooted future leader Angus Taylor in the southern NSW seat of Hume by installing Russell Matheson.

“Oh, he [Rowell] is gunning for him,” said one Liberal federal MP. “They [the party’s state executive] are even looking at [changing deadlines] so he can’t escape [to the Upper house] if challenged”.

Mr Matheson is the federal MP for Macarthur, a seat with a margin likely to be severely eroded by a redistribution of electoral boundaries. Mr Rowell’s wife, Belinda, works in the MP’s office.

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells also appears vulnerable to a challenge from the party’s left wing, according to members of her own conservative right faction.

A source said Mr Rowell, as the state MP, had created six branches in the electorate with Mr Taylor’s sign-off before rumours began he would turn the numbers against him.

NSW MP Mr Rowell has moved between factional groupings with fluidity. He recently declared himself a leader of the Liberals’ right wing before taking his numbers to its dominant left faction shortly after being demoted from Premier Mike Baird’s ministry.

The looming plans will be a test for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s political authority and the desire to present an image of a stable party and enjoy the benefits of incumbency in his first election.

“It’s clear that the ‘NSW disease’ is now bi-partisan,” said one federal Liberal MP. “Malcolm has to step up and defend his front-bencher [Senator Fierravanti-Wells]. This spiteful take no prisoners approach is eroding all collegiality in the parliamentary party”.

Mr Turnbull recently told a NSW party meeting that the Liberals, unlike Labor, were not run by factions. He was met with hoots of laughter.

The Herald has already revealed Craig Kelly and Bronwyn Bishop appear likely to face challenges.

Many of the replacements will see older MPs less rigid in their factional alignment replaced by young and loyal operatives.

Senator Heffernan, who would turn 80 at the expiration of the next Senate term, is not aligned to any faction, while Mr Ruddock, while widely seen to be of the party’s Left, is not a formal member of its grouping.

Ironically, the woman set to replace Mr Heffernan is his former employee Hollie Hughes, a former lobbyist and member of the centre-right faction.

Julian Leeser, also from the centre-right, has long been seen as Mr Ruddock’s inevitable successor and works for the Australian Catholic University in government relations.

Insurance industry lobbyist and left-faction member Richard Shields appears the most likely candidate to depose Senator Fierravanti-Wells.

The “red wedding” episode of the fantasy TV show Game of Thrones, featured the particularly graphic murder of a number of popular characters.

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