Who is Matthew Camenzuli? The 43-year-old IT millionaire suing the Liberal hierarchy – again
It’s not often the prime minister gets taken to the NSW supreme court, especially by a member of his own party.
But such is the vehemence of some NSW Liberal party members’ views towards the party’s internal preselection processes, that it has come to this.
The challenge is the second legal action launched in recent weeks against the Liberal hierarchy by little-known 43-year-old businessman Matthew Camenzuli.
Having already won a previous supreme court challenge last month – allowing the NSW executive to remain in place amid factional infighting – Camenzuli has now set his sights on an even bigger target.
If he wins, the political future of two federal ministers plus a long-term federal MP will be in doubt.
As it stands, the federal budget is less than a fortnight away, with the federal election campaign likely to start a few days later. Yet the Liberal party in NSW is without candidates in at least four winnable seats. This challenge could see another three thrown into disarray.
Camenzuli’s suit names a suite of senior Liberals, including the prime minister, Scott Morrison; the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet; and the former federal president of the party, Chris McDiven, over actions taken in March.
As a three-person committee appointed by the federal party, they briefly took control of the NSW branch and administratively affirmed three preselections: federal environment minister Sussan Ley in Farrer; immigration minister Alex Hawke in Mitchell; and Trent Zimmerman in North Sydney.
All three had been facing challenges for preselection, with Ley under threat from conservative rightwinger Christian Ellis. All three are now also named in Camenzuli’s court action, as well as the presidents of the state and federal Liberal divisions.
With the ministers’ futures supposedly secured, the remaining preselections had been set to proceed via plebiscites in late March.
But just as it seemed like the long-running factional war within the NSW Liberals had reached a ceasefire, Camenzuli this week launched another legal foray.
He argues that Ley, Hawke and Zimmerman were not preselected according to the Liberal party’s constitution, and the federal executive acted beyond its powers by appointing the three-person committee of Morrison, Perrottet and McDiven.
Camenzuli, a member of the NSW state executive, is either standing on principle or he smells a double-cross coming on the remaining preselections.
A businessman from Parramatta, Camenzuli founded an IT company in a garage in Greystanes that has grown into a multimillion dollar enterprise that provides software systems for home builders to help manage jobs.
Critics within the party point out that Camenzuli’s case could indirectly benefit his cousin Charles Camenzuli’s political ambitions. Charles Camenzuli is the likely frontrunner for the seat of Parramatta if the promised plebiscite occurs, but no outcome is certain.
Others say the action is proof of Matthew Camenzuli’s own desire to be in the limelight
However, Matthew Camenzuli vehemently denies both suggestions.
While he himself is not permitted by Liberal party rules to talk publicly, confidantes say his motivation is simple: he’s truly committed to seeing grassroots democracy take hold in the NSW Liberal party.
The 43-year-old is one of a relatively small group on the state executive that has been insisting that new democratic processes introduced to the constitution of the NSW Liberal party in 2018 – and being used for the first time in 2022 – be followed.
The group has resisted several proposals devised by factional leaders to carve up seats administratively and has used a rule that requires a 90% vote to use special powers to effectively stymie these deals.
“The prime minister just doesn’t understand that what’s at stake here is the very heart and soul of the Liberal party, and giving members a say,” said one friend.
Friends of Camenzuli say he was motivated to join the party 15 years ago because he believed the Liberals best represented small business, freedom and democracy.
He and Charles Camenzuli became active in the Parramatta branch and the conservative right faction. While Charles decided to run as a candidate – he represented the Liberals in Parramatta in 2019 and is one of several people seeking preselection this time around – Matthew has involved himself in behind-the-scenes politics.
He became a member of the party’s NSW state council, which represents the branches, and was elected as one of the “urban representatives” on the state executive, which effectively functions like the division’s board.
In 2017 Camenzuli and other like-minded conservatives, including former prime minister Tony Abbott, were behind the so called Warringah motion that called for rule changes to give ordinary members a bigger voice in choosing candidates.
The right was particularly supportive of the rule changes because they believe that the moderates have too much control over the NSW machine, while they, in fact, have a bigger base among the grassroots.
But other factions opposed it, warning plebiscites could lead to outbreaks of branch stacking and destabilise the party.
The 2017 Warringah proposal was modified before being adopted in 2018 so that branches got a 75% say and state executive was allocated 25% of the votes.
State executive could still take over preselections but the party put in safeguards that required 90% support from state executive before special powers could be used.
The 2022 federal election preselections are the first major use of the Warringah rules and the result has not been pretty. What started as an embarrassing impasse has now become a crisis.
Although aligned with the right faction, Camenzuli has made it clear he has no time for the factional power brokers within the party and wants to see their power curtailed.
“He puts his money where his mouth is,” said one confidante. “He doesn’t care about spending a million on legal fees, if that’s what it takes.”
Camenzuli’s case is currently not due to be dealt with until April, which would make it impossible to resolve before the May election. A request for an urgent hearing is being considered.
It’s possible that the remaining plebiscites will proceed and the court action will be discontinued.
Or it’s possible that this will trigger a wholesale takeover by the federal division when they meet next Friday.
Predicting what will happen in the NSW Liberal party has become nigh on impossible, even for those inside the tent.