Last week, the Financial Review highlighted how utterly underprepared the Liberal party is compared to Labor in contesting marginal seats.
The Fin found that while Labor has candidates running hard in the most marginal Liberal seats, including some who contested in 2016, the Liberals have just one selected candidate in the seven seats Labor holds by less than two per cent. This appalling under-preparedness, exposed by disappointing, last-minute candidate selections and campaigns in Mayo, Longman and Braddon, threatens the Turnbull government’s future as much as anything Bill Shorten and his motley crew may throw at it.
Eight months out, the Victorian division is particularly underprepared. Yet despite the Victorian state election suddenly looking winnable as the Andrews Labor government reels under a police investigation of its 2014 campaign funding practices led to dawn raids and arrests, the former jewel in the Liberal crown is in ongoing internal turmoil, with sitting senators under renewed threat from Young Turks now ruling the state party.
As noted here previously, the state Liberal Administrative Committee voted in early May to delay Senate preselections. Newly-dominant thrusters led by youthful hard conservative Marcus Bastiaan – the Bastiaanadoes – had in their sights two able senators, Jane Hume and James Paterson. Several Administrative Committee members of this faction are rumoured as having a strong interest in the seats now held by Hume and Paterson.
For a while, this push died down in the face of strongly negative grassroots reaction. However, last week the Administrative Committee re-endorsed all sitting House of Representatives MPs, but voted down extending this protection to Hume and Paterson. It also delayed Senate preselections until after the 24 November state poll – effectively pushing it into December at the earliest, or even February or March next year when a federal poll’s expected in May.
The message from the committee’s decision is clear. Competent sitting senators who have been working hard to support their party and promote the struggling Turnbull government, but may not be as ‘one of us’ as some of the new guard want, are fair game while their lower house colleagues – some of whom are indifferent performers under threat of preselection challenge – get a free pass.
It may well be the committee’s plan is to avoid a full Senate preselection – which in Victoria normally uses a plebiscite convention of 600-odd delegates, costing many tens of thousands of dollars – by doing it much more cheaply through the party’s standing policy body, the State Assembly, or at the very last-minute by the Administrative Committee itself. State president Michael Kroger has written to members giving a long justification of the Administrative Committee’s decisions, citing the uncertainty of the recent federal redistribution and the proximity to the federal and state elections as reasons for setting internal democracy aside. Given the party has sunk a great deal of money into inconclusively suing its biggest donor, the Cormack Foundation, his is a plausible money-saving rationale, even if Kroger’s explanations bury why the party’s finances are so strained.
But it doesn’t defend why the process to select the whole Senate ticket was deferred when it could have been done and dusted between May and now.
Even if Kroger’s explanations are taken at face value, the selectivity of the committee’s decisions – especially treating Senate preselections as open while MHRs are protected – has an unfortunate odour about it. In the light of internal power and recruitment games, how can it not? It’s not gone unnoticed that should a 600-member Senate convention be ditched for the quicker alternatives, Hume and Paterson don’t have the numbers to guarantee their places on the ticket against ambitious and impatient Young Turks.
Consequently, many grassroots Liberals are incensed that MHRs are being given unchallenged safe conduct to the frontier. If these MPs deserve such VIP treatment, these Liberals say with feeling, why isn’t it being extended to well-regarded sitting senators as well?
At any rate, determining one class of sitting federal MP is safe and the other fair game is more like an elimination episode of My Kitchen Rules without the cheesy voiceovers, not a demonstrably impartial and procedurally-fair selection process in which everyone can have confidence.
State Liberal leader Matthew Guy now has a very real chance of becoming Premier of Victoria in November, while Turnbull needs a maximum party effort to have even a chance at re-election. But these student politics games are distracting the Victorian chiefs, and many traditionally-stalwart grassroots Indians are turning out unenthusiastically or not at all for a party leadership they see as increasingly out of touch with them and their values.
Whereas the Turnbull government has drifted too far to the centre-left (who can forget Christopher Pyne’s ‘winner’s circle’ boast last year?), in Victoria dominant Liberal players are pushing too hard to the religious right. Yes, as those Young Turks say, Liberals need to return to their Burke and Mill roots and stand for more besides merely winning office. But in doing so they can’t stray too far from the secular mainstream, let alone roll well-regarded and established senators whose philosophies they don’t approve but are firmly in that mainstream. Yet less than four months before a winnable state election, and eight months away from a very tough federal election, some Victorian Liberals have lost sight of this political reality.
The volatile Victorian situation can be defused by the people most concerned. If those Administrative Committee members allegedly eyeing Paterson’s, Hume’s and a suddenly-vacant safe state seat recognise their conflicts of interest and declare they will not contest these in the interests of party unity, they would be praised for putting the Liberal cause first and clearing the way for the two incumbent senators up for re-election to be treated the same as MHRs.
It would be an honourable gesture, and not hurt their future ambitions either.
The charismatic Kroger, who has been around more blocks than a Lego set, has his own troubles with the Cormack litigation fallout, but he still is the only one with the authority capable of reining in over-enthusiastic Administrative Committee allies, as well as their MP and wider organisational supporters.
The Victorian public is desperate for the Andrews state Labor government to be defeated and a federal Shorten government never to become a reality.
As someone steeped in Liberal history and who has the maturity to understand Labor is the real enemy, not internal opponents, Kroger must do what he can to keep the party’s Young Turks in line as the sensible centre-right of Australian politics faces its biggest existential threat in 70 years.
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