“Do you think I’m corrupt?”
That’s what Camden State MP Chris Patterson asked me a little over two years ago a few minutes after we sat down to chat at a table just inside the door of the Backyard Café. It was not long after I started this blog and so he felt it was worth a catch-up.
My notes from that fairly genial meeting indicate we chatted about many other things, disagreed on some (the rise of independents as an electoral force and that the Liberals had actually performed below expectations in the 2016 election), agreed on others (the importance of maintaining the character of Camden township). But afterwards that question about corruption stuck in my mind. I couldn’t understand why it had even come up.
As I said to Chris then, I had no evidence and certainly wouldn’t go around making allegations about corruption without hard proof. The fact is, I doubt there is a single politician in the world that baseless gossip hasn’t labeled corrupt at some time but it isn't worth an inch of column space without solid gold evidence.
Since then, while there has certainly been no evidence of corruption, it is clear that Chris Patterson has been an arms length participant in the political games of Camden Council and played an important role in the politics of local Liberal branches.
But following the single nomination of Peter Sidgreaves for preselection as the Liberal candidate for the State seat of Camden, held with a 23% margin, that question around corruption is not one I could so easily dismiss today.
Timeline Peter Sidgreaves preselection
Multiple dictionary definitions describe it as a willingness to act dishonestly for advantage or personal gain.
So did our local MP Chris Patterson, Peter Sidgreaves and their Liberal Party colleagues act in a corrupt way? It's not something ICAC could decide on with this preselection debacle because it occurred within the rules of the Liberal Party - even if the result does have a direct bearing on candidates at the next election.
Which means any decision on whether or not the preselection process has been corrupted by Patterson, Sidgreaves and their Liberal Party colleagues can only be decided by voters at the ballot box next March.
What we can say is it seems party political processes have been used to gain an advantage for Sidgreaves with the full knowledge and likely assistance of Patterson; former mayor Lara Symkowiak; former Liberal Party councillor and current IHAP member Debbie Dewbery; and Camden Deputy Mayor Theresa Fideli.
The circumstances suggest that at the very least this appears to verge on the political equivalent of insider trading.
Here’s how Peter Sidgreaves came to be the only runner in the Liberal pre-selection process for the seat of Camden, according to recent reports.
It is important to remember that this is all underpinned by an unspoken rule that no one from the same party runs against a sitting member. It is a rare exception when this occurs, usually accompanied by plenty of media noise.
It is also important to recall that during the period when the Liberal pre-selection process for Camden was open, Patterson gave no public indication he would step down as Camden's local MP. Not surprisingly, as a result of this no Liberal candidate back in July put their name forward to run for Liberal Party preselection in Camden EXCEPT Patterson’s close friend Cr Peter Sidgreaves.
Intriguingly, the three referees for Sidgreaves nomination were Chris Patterson himself, his office assistant and former Liberal Councillor (and IHAP member) Debby Dewbery and former mayor Lara Symkowiak who stepped down for family reasons in September allowing Peter Sidgreaves to be elevated to the high profile position of Camden mayor. The document was witnessed by Deputy Mayor Theresa Fedeli.
In effect, if Patterson hadn’t already decided to retire in July then he, with a closed group of Liberal colleagues and friends, was endorsing his opponent for preselection, which is quite a bizarre thing to do. If you look past the absurdity of this then the only other option is that everyone involved new Patterson was going to retire and were complicit in making sure Sidgreaves was the only candidate for preselection.
They were able to place Sidgreaves in the position as the only runner because nominations for the Liberal Party preselection are kept completely in confidence until some months after the nomination process has closed. So, it is likely that few if any people in the Liberal Party outside of this group knew Sidgreaves had nominated for preselection.
Had it been common knowledge in the party that Patterson was stepping down, it is very unlikely Sidgreaves would be the only nominee for preselection.
The timing of Patterson's retirement announcement was also important because it made it impossible to open nominations again once all had been revealed because of new transparency rules put forward by the Liberals to give branches more power. According to the usual electoral processes, decisions on which candidate will be preselected to run in a State election have to be decided six months in advance and can't be overruled by head office. A March election for NSW means preselections have to be finalised around late September, early October.
So, when two months later, on September 28, Patterson announced he was retiring, suddenly Cr Sidgreaves, who coincidentally two weeks ago had been elevated to the high profile spot of mayor, found himself in an uncontested spot as the only Liberal in a position to be preselected as a candidate for Camden.
The reaction following that announcement suggested even other Liberals in the local branches had been under the impression Patterson was staying on for another term. When he publicly resigned after nominations had closed, there was outrage in his own party. Clearly it looked to them like a deal had been done.
This meant a range of potential candidates never had the opportunity to challenge for preselection and many felt they had been intentionally misled. One of those tipped to have a good shot at winning preselection over Peter Sidgreaves is Brett McGrath. He will now have to wait another four years.
Some Liberals have gone on the record with their anger at what has been described in recent commentary as a stitch-up. Camden Young Liberals President Aaron Colley has called for the State Executive to allow a new nomination period so other candidates can contest pre-selection.
So far the response from the executive has been… crickets. Well actually, worse than that. In the past week, Peter Sidgreaves was part of a photo op with the Premier Gladys Berejiklian for the extension of Campbelltown Hospital, suggesting head office has endorsed these political maneuverings in Camden.
And then of course Peter Sidgreaves also now gets his own photo-ops as mayor. Sidgreaves also won that mayoral election with the support of the same Liberal colleagues who acted as references and witnessed his nomination document and with the vote of the conservative independent Cr Rob Mills. He now has until March to boost his profile.
If this was not planned a long time ago by Patterson and his Liberal Council colleagues then it is a remarkable coincidence.
What does this all mean?
If you are a local Liberal Party member, it means the changes in the rules that were supposed to improve transparency around the pre-selection process have been trashed. Gladys Berejiklian and her cronies at Liberal Party head office appear to have given tacit approval to what appears to be an abuse of the preselection process through their non-response. Moreover, they have welcomed him into the fold by making him part of a photo-op, placing him right beside the Premier at a public event.
This has significant ramifications for the future of the pre-selection process in every Liberal branch. Anyone with a shot will now have to put their name forward even if the sitting member has no intention of stepping down in case this preselection game is played somewhere else. This opens up all sorts of potentially disruptive media stories close to election time and furthermore creates the possibility of unexpected results and headaches for Liberal Party head office.
I could also suggest it would damage the brand of the party but recent events at Federal and State level make it hard to imagine that the reputation of any of our major parties could descend any lower. Still, we have been wrong on that count before.
If you are a voter in the Camden electorate, you have to question whether a local candidate who appears to have done over members of his own party to advance his political career will put the community first as a member of parliament. It’s hard to imagine that a political career that starts with self-interest isn’t going to continue the same way. Peter Sidgreaves does not look like the new Liz Kernohan.
It is particularly ironic that when elevated to mayor, Peter Sidgreaves claimed he wanted to focus on jobs. He certainly appears to have focused on his own job.
Who wins? To go to such great lengths to secure a preselection position leaves plenty of questions. But the big one has to be, what do each of the players get in return if Peter Sidgreaves is elected as Camden's new MP? Is it simply the warm feeling of helping a friend and colleague into a chance at the top job? I'm sure we will find out over time.
- Lara Symkowiak steps down after six-year reign as Camden's mayor. Camden Advertiser. September 11, 2018.
- New Camden mayor Peter Sidgreaves to focus on jobs. Camden Advertiser. September 11, 2018.
- Chris Patterson announces he will not contest seat at March election. Camden Advertiser. September 28, 2018.
- Mayor poised to become Camden's new State member. Camden Advertiser. October 16, 2018.
- Democracy Liberal style (halfway down). Sydney Morning Herald. OCtober 16, 2018.
- Nepotism the clear winner in Camden for Liberals. Sydney Morning Herald. October 25, 2018.
- Our say: Premier needs to act immediately. Camden Advertiser. October 28, 2018.