Just as Liberal preselection wars are hotting up in NSW, David Crowe reported in Fairfax Media on Thursday that Victoria Liberal Party powerbrokers are ‘close to a deal to prevent a damaging civil war over the choice of new candidates at the next federal election’.
Putting aside the fact that even leaving sitting member preselections so late when an election can be held from August 4 is unwise, what’s reportedly being proposed in Victoria is no solution when control of the party is the problem.
The deal, as reported, is that sitting lower house MPs who renominate will be confirmed by the party’s state Administrative Committee, dominated by the hardline conservative faction led by the 20-something, Marcus Bastiaan. This will protect MPs thought endangered by the ruling faction’s triumph, including Julia Banks, who won the only seat the Liberals took off Labor anywhere in Australia in 2016, and libertarian-minded and media-friendly former Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson. It also ensures that long-serving former Howard and Abbott minister, Kevin Andrews will be, unreasonably, safe from challenge, even though sources say he doesn’t have the numbers to win a contested preselection in his own branches.
On the other hand, such generous protection won’t be afforded to sitting senators James Paterson and Jane Hume, with a Senate preselection still planned and challenger candidates from the ruling faction champing at the bit. As I have previously written, both Paterson and Hume are being circled by challenging hardline sharks and Hume, in particular, is vulnerable. Not that they are getting much sympathy from their lower house colleagues: when asked on Sky News about Hume, Member for Deakin and ambitious Turnbull government parliamentary secretary Michael Sukkar said that MPs should not interfere in preselections, as choosing MPs is the prerogative of party members in Victoria’s ‘very democratic’ system.
But then, the religiously-conservative Sukkar is secure in his Deakin stronghold, buttressed by an influx of new members from like-thinking fundamentalist churches and community groups into his branches, who presumably check their mobile phones when votes on key positions are taken. Sukkar knows the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Calling off preselection contests against sitting MPs while gunning for senators is anything but a peace deal. Clearly, the controlling theocratic tendency is still targeting senators opposing positions what they and their supporters advocate. As a moderate, Hume is seen by them as unsound on hot-button social issues such as same-sex marriage, the very sorts of issues that galvanised the religious Right into the potent and destructive force it has become in the party and given its most outstanding potential candidate, lawyer Karina Okotel, a national profile.
The targeting of Paterson is more puzzling: as a social conservative and economic libertarian, whose original candidacy was supported strongly by Victorian party president Michael Kroger (who is a renowned political pragmatist and tactician but needed and got the Bastiaan group’s support when he was challenged for the presidency in April), his ‘thought crime’ merely seems to be that he either is not religiously conservative enough for the Taliban group, or simply that he has not joined them and pledged his allegiance.
And, ironically, while the democratisation of Victorian preselections has led to more open contests in lower house seats, for the Senate, a preselection convention involving many hundreds of eligible delegates is much more vulnerable to manipulation by canny factional power brokers. It is also a lengthy process and expensive to contest under Liberal party rules. Surely the deal should be: guarantee all sitting MHRs and senators or guarantee none.
The undeniable message is that if one’s not aligned with the Victorian ruling faction, whether moderate or conservative, one is what Sukkar once termed a ‘termite’ or, worse, a ‘socialist’. It seems, rightly or wrongly, that anyone who believes politics should be value-driven, but secular, fits that category in today’s Victorian Liberals.
The problem with what’s happening in the Victorian Liberal Party’s latest and most damaging factional arrangement is that this determined push by the new power elite to bolster member numbers, and consolidate personal power bases by courting hardcore religious conservatives, is taking the party further away from its roots as centre-right, mainstream, tolerant and, above all, secular political movement.
The broad church must not become a narrow-minded theocracy: purging different opinions and the people who hold them is no way for the Liberals to retain government, let alone win it from opposition in the future. Assuring MHRs of job security while exposing equally competent – and arguably more so in at least some cases – senators to the preselection retribution of the ruling party within a party, and so close to a very difficult federal election, therefore is not a guarantee of peace. It is a guarantee of division and conflict, and plays into the hands of the real enemy: Labor.
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