Liberal Party campaign operatives are dismayed that Tony Abbott has taken little part in the defence of two state seats located inside his federal electorate of Warringah, both of which are up for byelections on Saturday.
His absence from the hustings has highlighted growing friction in Warringah between loyalists of Mr Abbott and those who believe the former prime minister’s time in politics should be at an end.
Mr Abbott has not campaigned for Left-backed Felicity Wilson, the Liberal candidate replacing former health minister Jillian Skinner in the seat of North Shore, two-thirds of which lies within Warringah, including the Liberal heartland of Mosman.
He did a street walk with Manly candidate James Griffin on March 25 but has since been tied up with Parliament and his annual Pollie Pedal charity ride, which began on Monday.
A noted campaigner and lauded for his “cut-through” with voters, Mr Abbott will not be in Warringah on byelection day, with Pollie Pedal scheduled to roll into Sydney on Monday, his office confirmed.
A spokesman for Mr Abbott stressed the route and logistics for the ride had been finalised months before Mr Baird’s shock resignation and Ms Skinner’s subsequent retirement.
A number of Liberals working on the campaigns who spoke to Fairfax Media stressed there was no criticism of Mr Abbott’s commitment to Pollie Pedal but one said “eyebrows had been raised” at his overall involvement since the Liberal candidates were preselected.
“His absence has definitely been noted. This is not about Pollie Pedal, it is the past three weeks we’re talking about,” said a senior Liberal.
By contrast, Trent Zimmerman, whose federal seat of North Sydney overlays part of North Shore, has joined Ms Wilson at train stations every morning this week and taken part in other events, including two with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Mr Abbott had been scheduled to campaign with Mr Griffin in Manly last Friday but was prevented by the extra sitting day in Canberra as the Turnbull Government steered its company tax cut through the Senate.
But there appears to have been no plans to support Ms Wilson, who had the backing of left faction warlord Michael Photios, a powerbroker who has been in the sights of Mr Abbott since he was deposed as Liberal leader by Malcolm Turnbull.
A Liberal Party spokeswoman declined to comment on the specifics of Mr Abbott’s contribution in North Shore and Manly.
“The NSW Liberal Party has been grateful for the support of the three local Liberal federal members who have all campaigned alongside our state byelection candidates around their parliamentary and other commitments,” she said in a statement.
Focus on Warringah has intensified since both candidates backed by Mr Abbott failed to win preselection for Manly and North Shore.
A local party source compared that failure to harness support in the branches with the way in which Bronwyn Bishop’s support vanished despite her grip on Mackellar having previously been considered “North Korean” in its dominance.
“They are sick of the undermining of Malcolm Turnbull and question what Abbott’s first objective is: to beat Turnbull or Labor? Their biggest wish is to not see Bill Shorten become the prime minister.”
But a senior figure from the moderate or left faction said there was no prospect that Mr Abbott would be under siege in Warringah.
“This is a respected former prime minister we are talking about, not someone caught rorting expenses,” he said.
Ms Berejiklian’s name has been connected with Warringah in the longer term while there is also local speculation that high-profile crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen could have her eyes on entering politics through the seat.
She is said to be part of the conservative “Catholic mafia” around Mr Abbott in Warringah and campaigned for Walter Villatora, the Abbott-backed preselection candidate who lost comprehensively to Mr Griffin.
Despite expected swings against the government, Liberals expect to easily hold Manly and win North Shore on Saturday.
Follow us on Facebook