Flat White

Did the wrong woman get Higgins?

25 February 2019

12:01 PM

25 February 2019

12:01 PM

The Prime Minister’s wish has been granted. Outgoing member for Higgins and Cabinet minister, Kelly O’Dwyer will be succeeded by a woman: paediatrician and candidate for the Victorian state seat of Prahran in last November’s Danslide, Dr Katie Allen.

According to the Age, Allen beat former Liberal state vice-president and last year’s challenger of now-ousted state president Michael Kroger and fellow Higgins local, Greg Hannan, by 158 to 116 votes in the third ballot.  She got to the final round by knocking the highly-fancied Zoe McKenzie into third place in an upset.  McKenzie, a consultant, former top adviser to Brendan Nelson in the Howard years, policy director for Victorian premier Ted Baillieu, chief-of-staff to trade minister Andrew Robb in the first term of the current government (and reputedly the only Coalition staffer with the toughness to confront Peta Credlin) and NBN independent director, was highly fancied to take the honours, ticking both the merit and gender boxes.

Apart from his inconvenient gender, Hannan has a strong merit case.  He is well-known, likeable, served with distinction on the Liberal executive, is a long-term stalwart of the party, dared to openly challenge the arrogant supremacy of the hard conservative faction then aligned with Kroger and, with a professional background in the energy industry, is uniquely qualified to take a lead in one of the hottest of hot issues in federal politics whoever wins the election.  His misfortune was to stand to replace a woman at a time when a number of Liberal woman MPs are either going or could be gone in May, and the party is self-righteously branded by its opponents, media critics and woke Drum panellists who’d never vote for it as having a ‘woman problem’.

In the field of eight, there were only two or three candidates who were federal politics-suitable and capable of making the Liberal frontbench in a leadership seat deemed worthy of two prime ministers, Harold Holt and John Gorton, and Australia’s best and longest-serving treasurer, Peter Costello.  Every other runner and rider, including Allen, were quality candidates but fell short against those crucial Higgins criteria.

A late 2018 internal Labor poll in Higgins put O’Dwyer behind Labor 52-48.  Even when taking that poll with a pinch of salt, in this hostile political climate for the Libs it’s going to be a tough ask of a new candidate not widely known across the whole Higgins electorate, not to mention someone who fronted a two-party swing of over 7 per cent against the Liberals in Prahran last November, and blamed the Feds to avoid responsibility for her result. But with the Morrison government finally showing some signs of fight, and with first-rate campaign support from Costello, O’Dwyer and Liberal HQ, Allen should hold against a Labor-Greens tide. Should.

While unfair to Hannan, it is welcome that O’Dwyer is being replaced by a woman in a seat that should be safe, therefore not exacerbating the Liberal ‘woman problem’ and guaranteeing Allen a long political career (if, that is, she can get through this May).  But have the Higgins preselectors have chosen the wrong woman?

McKenzie in federal parliament would have been a much more formidable asset for the Coalition and a Liberal MP that Labor would fear. She has formidable intellectual and policy heft across a range of portfolios that would make her an excellent frontbench contributor in the still more likely prospect of Opposition, and would be the sort of minister who would take no BS from the public service or rent-seekers and, unlike the second XI brains over-represented on the current government frontbench (with some honourable exceptions it must be said), would add value and quality to the discussion around either the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet table.  She would have been a worthy successor to her distinguished predecessors.

But there is another lesson from Higgins history that may yet be repeated after Sunday.

Few now around the parliament, including influential press gallery members and leading commentators like the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas – who took to Twitter on Sunday evening fearing (Quelle horreur!) a bloke, Hannan, would prevail in the final ballot – would remember a bloke named Roger Shipton.

‘Shippo’, was member for Higgins from 1975 until 1990, an affable and decent man who was very popular around Parliament House then and in his post-politics lobbying career, where I got to know him and his effective but very politically incorrect way of getting his foot in the door of Liberal MPs’ Opposition offices.  But except for two years as a junior shadow minister after the 1983 election loss, Shipton warmed the backbench for his entire parliamentary career, until Kroger and Costello engineered his removal.  Shipton wasted a leadership seat: Costello redeemed it.

It was wrong for a highly suitable candidate in Hannan to be treated so shabbily by opponents and the media for simply being a capable man wanting to succeed Kelly O’Dwyer.  But the preselectors looking past someone of McKenzie’s political calibre, someone in whom they could have had a guaranteed frontbencher selected on merit who also just happens to be a successful woman, is astonishing.

In their bypassing McKenzie and Hannan for political naif Allen, it’s hard to escape the niggling worry that instead of picking a successor to Costello on Sunday, the preselectors of Higgins may have chosen a successor to Shipton.

It’s now up to Dr Allen to prove that she isn’t the wrong woman.

Illustration: Australian Electoral Commission.

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