Longstanding Canberra Liberals president John Cziesla has been ousted in extraordinary circumstances at an ill-tempered AGM last night in which the hard right old guard relinquished all but two positions.
The night is being seen as a big defeat for the conservative forces led by Mr Cziesla, former senator Zed Seselja and Deputy Leader in the Legislative Assembly Jeremy Hanson, and a turning point for the party that has lost five ACT elections in a row and suffered the humiliating loss of a Senate seat.
It is believed the AGM lined up opposing teams backed by Mr Hanson and the moderate party Leader Elizabeth Lee, both of whom were in the room.
But two senior party sources said the results were driven by a pragmatic alliance of members across the party – not just the moderates – fed up with losing elections and the management style and extreme views of the hard right.
One said the changes would give Ms Lee more freedom to act as Leader and prosecute the Liberal cause.
“The constraints that Elizabeth has been working under can be removed,” the source said. “She has felt the dead weight of the conservatives that run the party machine up until now very much on her shoulders.
“It was a big blow to the right of the party and hopefully, it means a shift back to the sensible centre.”
Another party member at the meeting said Mr Cziesla, who had been president since 2017, was to be opposed by Nick Tyrell, but he had to withdraw due to a personal emergency.
Mr Cziesla’s supporters then tried to have him installed unopposed, but points of order from the floor forced him to contest an empty chair, allowable under the party rules.
The vote went 122-117 against Mr Cziesla, but the position will have to be decided at another meeting, which will have to be held before preselections in February.
Mr Cziesla, who was quizzed on the 2020 federal election review and loss of the Senate seat, could still regain the top position, but it is considered unlikely given the mood of the meeting.
“It was really interesting that people would rather choose an empty chair than John,” the party member who wished to be unnamed said.
Many believed Mr Cziesla was not on board with Ms Lee, contradicting her public statements in private.
“That’s why everyone was pushing to replace John because you need to have people on the same wavelength,” the party member said.
The moderate or anti-Seselja forces took the vice-presidency with Megan Fox winning 133 to 119 over former Seselja staffer Joshua Osborne-Goldsbrough. Courtney May won the finance director’s position.
Mr Hanson ran an all-male ticket, incurring the wrath of women in the party, some of whom were shouted down by old guard supporters in the meeting.
“Any women running last night were not on Jeremy’s side,” the party member said.
A senior party source said “normal” party members were no longer prepared to put up with the aggressive male clique that had dominated the party.
The source said they were not operating in the party’s best interests, and the new team would give Ms Lee the best chance of winning the election.
“It was a solid repudiation,” the source said.
The party member said that when it became clear how the meeting was going, the old guard became increasingly angry.
“They felt the winds of change happening,” the party member said.
“It was a shitshow. They tried to roll it and nobody let them let them and they didn’t know how to deal with it. They weren’t prepared for not being able to do whatever they wanted.”
The result represented a loss for the old guard and showed that Mr Seselja, who is pursuing a NSW Senate seat and did not attend the meeting, had lost control of the Canberra Liberals, the party member said.
Treasurer Jimmy Kiploks was returned unopposed and the right’s Patrick Fazonne defeated Liam Devlin for the policy position.