Stuart Ayres touted as strong contender for Liberal Party director

NSW election 2023

Full election results

Dumped member for Penrith Stuart Ayres could quickly turn around his political misfortune in Saturday’s heavy election loss, with the former MP emerging as a contender to take the reins of the embattled NSW Liberal Party as its next state director.

The long-time western Sydney MP, who was ousted by former Penrith mayor and Labor candidate Karen McKeown in the state poll, has been touted as a possible replacement for outgoing director Chris Stone.

Senior Liberals reeling after the election defeat consider Ayres a strong contender for the role, which sources say is also being eyed by the man who oversaw Dominic Perrottet’s failed campaign for re-election.

Andrew Constance, Stuart Ayres and Marise Payne at the Liberals’ post-election event at which Ayres spoke.

Flavio Brancaleone

Yaron Finkelstein, previously Scott Morrison’s chief political strategist, was drafted into the former Liberal premier’s campaign late last year to lead strategy for the poll that has so far lost the party nine seats.

One senior NSW Liberal source, who requested anonymity to discuss internal party matters, said Finkelstein and Ayres’ names were both being discussed for the job since the election defeat. However, they said Ayres was considered the strongest contender.

“This is a guy who had been a minister, he knows NSW, he knows the party, and he knows western Sydney,” they said.

“He’s got good relationships across the party, and not just in the moderates.”

Ayres was considered to have given a “quasi-pitch” for the role of state director, which Stone is expected to soon vacate after seven years, at a forum and customary post-election “post-mortem” by the party’s moderate faction on Sunday.

He was invited to give a speech to about 100 members at the forum, where he spoke about the importance of rebuilding the Liberal branch structure in critical regions like western Sydney and the South Coast, which had taken a decade to establish.

One senior Liberal who was at the event said Ayres called out fellow moderates in the room who had sought to suggest “the moderate faction, at least” had not fared too badly losing only two seats – Penrith and South Coast.

“Stuart gets up, he says, ‘I just wanted to inject a little bit of realism to the room. We’ve just lost an election, it’s not a celebration’, or words to the effect,” the source said.

“He said we need to be in these communities, identifying candidates and growing the branch structures. It’s not about bringing ideas that reflect the north shore of Sydney.”

Recriminations within the Liberals began immediately on election night, with outgoing senior ministers insisting the party’s organisational wing bear responsibility, in particular for failing to preselect strong candidates.

A now-former Liberal minister said on Saturday night that Perrottet had been “hamstrung in his efforts to lead” by a party structure that fought against him.

With the party in the throes of an identity crisis, the role of the state director will be critical in guiding it as it seeks to rebuild in NSW.

While some members of the party’s centre-right faction are internally lobbying for Finkelstein to take on the role, he is considered a controversial and unpopular choice by other factions.

Although it’s been speculated that he was eyeing the role, he’s told sources he is not interested.

Party insiders say Finkelstein must carry some responsibility for the campaign that led to Saturday’s result because it mirrored mistakes of the Morrison government’s failed federal campaign in 2022.

Ayres did not respond to a request for comment from the .

As the electoral commission continues to count the final votes from Saturday’s poll, surpassing four million on Thursday, the contest to replace Perrottet as leader of the parliamentary party continues with former ministers Mark Speakman, Alister Henskens and Anthony Roberts in contention.

Perrottet is also likely to need a replacement as the member for Epping, with Liberal colleagues saying they do not expect him to remain in the seat for long. The party’s most senior woman in NSW, former minister Natalie Ward, has been touted as a potential candidate to take on the seat.

Such a move would require Ward to move from the upper house to the lower house, which she attempted last year in a failed preselection bid to run in the ultra-safe seat of Davidson.

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