The death of Jim Molan has sparked a round of Liberal infighting in New South Wales, including a call for Tony Abbott to fill his Senate seat and a push for senior moderate Marise Payne to quit parliament.
Molan died on Monday after a “sudden and rapid” decline in health after Christmas, vacating a Liberal Senate seat he was appointed to in 2019 when Arthur Sinodinos resigned, and which he was re-elected to in 2022 for a six-year term.
Although Catholic Schools NSW chief executive, Dallas McInerney, was considered an early favourite for the vacancy, on Wednesday evening Michael Kroger, the former Victorian Liberal president, began the push for Abbott, the former prime minister, to take the seat.
“Obviously this is a matter purely for the NSW party and no one likes getting advice from people outside their own state,” Kroger told Sky News Australia.
“But I would think there’s a fairly obvious replacement for someone of Jim’s seniority and that would be Tony Abbott.”
Kroger credited Abbott, who won the 2013 election before being dumped by the Liberal partyroom in 2015 for Malcolm Turnbull and losing his seat to independent Zali Steggall in 2019, as one of the “most successful opposition leaders”.
“He’s not going to be leader again but boy, what a powerhouse of knowledge and experience in putting someone like Abbott to mentor some of the newer people in the parliament,” Kroger reportedly said. “I don’t think you could find anyone better.”
Abbott has not confirmed if he will be a candidate, but Liberal sources told Guardian Australia he is keen to re-enter public life and they are taking the push seriously.
On Thursday, Abbott penned an opinion piece for the Australian newspaper arguing the best way to honour the dead is “to take seriously the causes that mattered to them”, crediting Molan for warning that Australia is “sleepwalking through lotus-land instead of responding sensibly to Beijing’s drive for world domination”.
“As Molan warns, wishful thinking about American invincibility is now as fanciful as assumptions about China’s likely evolution into a peaceful democracy,” Abbott wrote.
“Like Molan, I am convinced that the only way to avoid a Chinese attack on Taiwan is to make its cost unacceptable to Beijing.”
The prospect of Abbott’s return to the Senate alarmed Liberals keen to rejuvenate the party. One said it is “not what the party needs, not what Peter Dutton needs and it’s a bad idea – not just for the party but for him [Abbott] too”.
“Kroger should stick to the Victorian division which has enough problems of its own,” one senior New South Wales Liberal told Guardian Australia.
“There is an element of distaste about this being discussed before Molan’s funeral. There is plenty of time, the preselection won’t be held before the March NSW election.”
The seat will be filled by the NSW Liberal party’s 750-member state council, but factions are yet to even agree which of them will take the vacancy.
The party’s remaining senators from NSW are Payne and Andrew Bragg, both moderates, and Hollie Hughes, from the centre right.
One view is that before the election all factions agreed that Molan’s position would go to the hard right.
Hughes – who described the positioning of others as a “bit disrespectful” – put the case that her faction should get the vacancy on Sky News on Wednesday evening.
“I did see that the hard right was claiming that this was their spot,” Hughes said.
“Interestingly, they actually didn’t back Jim [Molan] the last couple times, it was actually the centre right.
“I would like to see another strong centre-right conservative person go into the Senate, someone with that sort of measured sensible view.”
Some view this as “rewriting history” and believe the moderates should respect a deal to elect a replacement from the hard right, while others believe they could support a rival candidate.
Some moderates are also agitating for Payne, the former foreign minister and the longest serving female senator in Australian history, to quit, citing her light official duties.
After the Coalition’s defeat at the May 2022 election, Payne accepted the appointment of shadow cabinet secretary rather than taking a substantive portfolio.
The feeling is not universal in the faction, with senior leaders arguing Payne is highly respected and had earned the right to go at a time of her choosing, and others suggesting the push is counter-productive and more likely to prompt her to dig in and stay.
A NSW Liberal spokesperson said: “The division will undertake a process to select a candidate to fill the casual vacancy in due course.”