The $175-a-head dinner ($130 for members) was held at the sprawling Miramare Gardens estate in Terrey Hills, just outside Mr Abbott’s former electorate of Warringah. Last year the venue featured in the pages of Vogue magazine when former Miss Universe Australia Monika Radulovic married artist Alesandro Ljubicic.
Every member of the NSW Liberal Party was invited, including Mr Turnbull, although senior party sources indicated the former member for Wentworth was not called upon to speak.
Selected attendees were invited to a pre-dinner drinks function from 6.15pm. Liberal Party state director Chris Stone warned them not to blab about the private drinks to their dinner guests.
Those spotted at the pre-drinks included Energy Minister Angus Taylor, Bennelong MP John Alexander, senator-in-waiting Jim Molan and the member for Berowra Julian Leeser.
Big names on the guest list were NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, cabinet ministers including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, Mr Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, federal Liberal president Nick Greiner and party director Andrew Hirst.
It was a decidedly cross-factional evening in attendance if not in spirit. Mr Abbott’s conservative allies were joined by a healthy contingent of NSW moderates including Families Minister Gareth Ward, federal MP for Mackellar Jason Falinski, Manly state MP James Griffin and North Shore state MP Felicity Wilson.
Numerous business figures from the northern beaches were also there, including former Woolies boss Roger Corbett (who is also president of the Liberal electorate conference in Warringah), Tony Stuart, who was head of the NRMA and is now in charge of UNICEF Australia, and philanthropist couple Kay van Norton Poche and her husband Greg, who founded Star Track Express.
NSW Liberal Party president Philip Ruddock, who will be returned to that position unopposed at Saturday’s state council meeting, was due to give the vote of thanks. He said members’ interest in the sold-out event was unprecedented.
“We’ve had an enormous number of people who wanted to be there but couldn’t – people who recognise [Mr Abbott’s] very significant and outstanding contribution to Australia,” he said.
“People don’t always agree on every issue, but they recognise that his service has been unique and extraordinarily special.”
Mr Abbott was to be bestowed with a lifetime service award, the highest award that can be given to a member of the NSW Liberal Party.
He entered Parliament in 1994 at a byelection and held the seat of Warringah for 25 years. During that time he served as a minister in the Howard government, including in the health portfolio, and then led the Liberal Party into government in 2013 with a decisive victory over Kevin Rudd’s Labor.
But he was deposed when Mr Turnbull challenged him for the top job in 2015, following a period of instability in the government and backbench dissatisfaction with his judgment and his office. At the May election, Mr Abbott lost his seat due to a massive swing to independent Zali Steggall, a former Olympic skier.
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.