tip off

Dead wood and bad blood

One swallow does not a summer make, and even the months from December to February don’t count for as much as other seasons on the Australian political calendar (the ones not habitually described as "silly"). Even so, we’re far enough into Labor’s new era to state with confidence that those who predicted a brief honeymoon for Mark Latham followed by a dramatic fall to earth had it precisely wrong. Throughout December and January a sceptical Peter Brent at Mumble persuasively argued that Latham was not in fact enjoying the opinion poll bounce that many were imagining they were seeing simply because they were expecting it, and had in fact done no more than recover the vote that went astray during the weeks of leadership turmoil in late November. So it proved for each Newspoll up to February 20-22, each of which showed Latham’s Labor stuck in the 39 to 41 per cent bracket. However all that changed with the poll of March 5-7, in which Labor broke through to 44 per cent against 41 per cent for the Coalition, translating into a terrifying 10 per cent gap after distribution of Labor-heavy minor party preferences. Not for the first time in recent years, the result has been a wholesale junking of most existing items of conventional wisdom, in particular those relating to the value of incumbency and experience in an unsettled global security climate. All of a sudden "rejuvenation" is the word on the lips of Coalition watchers, and preselection challenges to actual or perceived under-achievers have taken on a new importance.

Enough ink has been spilled on Malcolm Turnbull’s surprisingly clear 88-70 win in the Wentworth preselection the weekend before last that the Poll Bludger will content himself with guiding interested readers towards the post-mortems from Glenn Milne at The Australian and Hillary Bray at Crikey. Suffice to say that the result indeed looked pretty good in Liberal-rejuvenation terms, until one considers firstly that defeated incumbent Peter King had barely two years in which to prove himself, and then the result of the other, less publicised Liberal preselection ballot held in Sydney that weekend. With a margin of 21.4 per cent, the Sydney "bible belt" seat of Mitchell is the Liberals’ second safest, a glittering prize held for the party for no less than 30 years by one Alan Cadman. The aforementioned Glenn Milne article gives some idea why Cadman has been able to go untroubled for so long, recounting that former federal director Andrew Robb’s ambitions for the seat were thwarted when he was informed that only a local candidate would be acceptable, which from this outsider’s perspective seems an unfortunate state of affairs. When local opposition eventually coalesced around former Nick Greiner staffer and AGL executive Ian Woodward, Cadman experienced a sudden burst of energy, failing to impress Peter Costello with a column in The Australian calling for a higher tax-free threshold for families. Costello may have had Cadman in mind when he lamented that there were not two seats available for both Peter King and Malcolm Turnbull, saying "I don’t think we’re so overflowing with talent that we don’t have opportunities elsewhere". However Cadman was obviously doing something right at the local level (and perhaps also reaping the benefits of years of loyalty to Howard), defying gravity and reason to win a narrow 58-55 victory that will certainly see the 66 year old warming a seat on the back bench for three more years.

Three intertwined preselection battles in Queensland, one decided and the other two still in play, reveal the deep faultlines in the Queensland Liberal Party which explain their paltry representation in the state parliament and bode ill for their hopes in this crucial state at the coming federal election. The Brisbane seat of Ryan has been a constant source of fascination in recent years, starting with Labor’s deceptive by-election victory following Liberal minister John Moore’s untimely retirement in early 2001. This was followed by a divisive contest for the right to contest the seat at the November 2001 election in which state party president Bob Tucker was defeated by Michael Johnson, who seems to be creating more than his fair share of enemies as he climbs the greasy pole. Two names came forward as possible challengers – the withdrawal of the more prominent of the two, Brisbane City Councillor Margaret de Wit, was blamed by Graham Young at National Forum on threats to her own preselection for council. This leaves twice-defeated state election candidate Steven Huang opposing Johnson in the ballot to be held this weekend. Huang’s Taiwanese background could at least counter one of Johnson’s greatest strengths in securing the numbers, support from Brisbane’s Chinese community derived from his own half-Chinese background. Young does not fancy Huang’s chances, but such is the aroma surrounding Johnson that a strong conservative independent candidate could potentially make life interesting for him at the coming election, although such things are difficult to pull off in urban federal seats.

In the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, Liberal almost-veteran and Johnson factional colleague Peter Slipper comfortably won a three-way contest with 168 votes against barrister Glen Garrick (75 votes) and accountant Kerrie Cook (9 votes) (result courtesy of Peter Slipper’s office via Crikey’s newsletter). Graham Young claims these challenges to members of the "Sicilian" faction (so-called on account of power brokers Michael Caltabiano and Santo Santoro) have provoked a revenge attack on Peter Lindsay in Herbert through the agency of Townsville oncologist Peter Fon, the outcome of which will be decided on April 24. Young’s assessment has gained currency in light of the suspension of the entire Townsville branch of the Young Liberals by the Santoro/Caltabiano-dominated state executive (as reported on March 1 in the Courier-Mail) whose accusations of branch-stacking against Lindsay supporters have struck many Queensland Liberal Party observers as somewhat audacious.

Similarly, the demotion of Senators Judith Troeth and Tsebin Tchen on the Victorian Liberal Senate ticket has a lot more to do with rivalry than renewal, with the beneficiary being former Ballarat MHR Michael Ronaldson, whose retirement on health grounds had a lot to do with his seat being the only one lost by the Coalition at the 2001 election. He is evidently feeling better now, with his success in securing the top position on the Coalition list giving the Kroger-Costello forces revenge for Karen Synon’s demotion at the expense of Kennett-backed Tchen at the 1998 election. With second spot reserved for the National Party’s Julian McGauran, Troeth faces an uphill battle winning from third position while Tchen is gone for all money, the net result being a small but potentially significant increase in the Costello camp’s representation on the party room floor. Readers of a sensitive disposition may well have been pleased to hear talk that New South Wales Senator Bill Heffernan’s position was also under threat, but The Australian reported on March 2 (no link available) that Heffernan was likely to retain top position at the vote to be held next Saturday (March 20). However the right are gunning for a conservative clean sweep with their candidate Connie Fierravanti-Wells hoping to turf moderate incumbent John Tierney out of second place, with third reserved for the National Party.

Far be it from the Poll Bludger to suggest that a party with Wilson Tuckey and Bronwyn Bishop among its ranks might have hoped for a better harvest of dead wood than just Peter King and Tsebin Tchen (and perhaps also Peter Lindsay, Michael Johnson and John Tierney), but he would be far from the only observer now suspecting that the electorate could end up doing the job for them.

UPDATE (15/3/04): Crikey reports Michael Johnson defeated Steven Huang in Ryan by 328 votes to 68.

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