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Peter Debnam - a lone ranger who won't be managed

By Peter Van Onselen and Stephen Barton - posted Tuesday, 6 September 2005

Peter Debnam has been elected leader of the state Liberal Party. In the wake of the events surrounding the resignation of John Brogden, he will have his work cut out to forge unity before the 2007 election.

So who is Peter Debnam? Some political commentators have suggested the Liberals erred in selecting such a low-profile candidate over Barry O'Farrell. The reality is neither is particularly well-known. It is hard to know a shadow minister whose profile is made up from 10-second sound bites. A low profile is a fact of life for shadow ministers, made worse by Brogden's propensity to elbow shadows out of the limelight.

Debnam's background is a study in contrast to Brogden's. It is a throwback to a less careerist political generation, but not the "old-world English style", as one Sydney daily characterised it.


At 51, Debnam is older and wiser than Brogden. He is an avid reader of politics with a fitness regime - he swims for an hour every morning - more regimented than that of the prime minister. He served for nearly a decade as an officer in the navy, but worked for just as long in the business world as a consultant, completing an MBA before entering Parliament in the dying days of the Fahey Government.

He has never been one for drinking with his staff (or journalists), preferring to socialise with family and friends. There won't be any debilitating indiscretions on Debnam's watch.

Those who know him well are impressed, but his aloof manner could be a problem with the media and the party. His engaged demeanour at the press conference after he was elected leader yesterday was, however, a good start.

Media coverage of Debnam has described him as a creature of the Christian right. While this group backed his bid for the leadership, Debnam is certainly not a member of it. His religious affiliations have long been no one's business but his own. That is how he likes it. The Christian right in the Liberals supported Debnam because it considered O'Farrell too close to the Group (a section of the Liberal left).

In years gone by, the Group purged the NSW Liberal Party of anyone who didn't think its way, uniting the various factions - left and right - against it.

The dilemma for Debnam now that he has won the leadership with the backing of the Christian right is this: will he be beholden to it? We suspect not.


As a shadow minister he had a reputation as a lone ranger. This is indicative of an MP who is his own man. He will look to shape the party to his mantra, rather than be shaped by sections of it.

Inevitable preselection squabbles in the coming year will have to be delicately handled. He will not want to be seen to turn his back on the Christian right, but even tacit support could enrage the Group. How will he navigate these difficult shoals? His ability to stay out of the bitter preselection battle between Malcolm Turnbull and Peter King for the federal seat of Wentworth perhaps provides the blueprint.

What does Debnam stand for? His guiding theme is effective and efficient financial management, a result of his naval, business and MBA days. As the Howard Government's attacks on federalism continue to erode states' rights, the role of premier is becoming more suited to his management approach. When it comes to policy, expect him to concentrate on economic reform.

His tough stance on law and order is genuine, but on social issues, although he is a strong critic of the Kings Cross injecting room, he is not as conservative as some of his supporters.

There is no denying Debnam has a difficult task ahead of him. He is the member for Vaucluse, the nation's richest electorate - something the ALP will gleefully point out, never mind that he spent his early years in Broken Hill. Morris Iemma has a comfortable majority. But the state's leftover problems from Bob Carr's reign give Debnam political ammunition.

Politics sometimes has a certain symmetry about it. In 1994, Debnam defeated Brogden at preselection for the seat of Vaucluse. He now takes over from Brogden as leader of the NSW Liberals. The task is all before him.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 2, 2005.

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About the Authors

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Peter Van Onselen
All articles by Stephen Barton

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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