Jeff Kennett lost office on a wave of bush anger but if the latest Liberal preselection in Benalla is any guide, the Victorian Libs still have a lot to learn about rural sensitivities to head office intervention.

The Liberal Party leadership is still stomping around country Victoria, imposing its Melbourne-centric will on rural people except now it is Liberal Party Branches who are being told what is good for them. The Branches of the State electorate of Benalla have just been given a candidate that they overwhelming voted against at his preselection.

Ironically, it was this seat which best exemplified the alienation of country people during the Kennett period of government. Benalla was previously held for seventeen years by Pat McNamara, the former Leader of the National Party. As a Minister, McNamara symbolised the distant and arrogance capital city Coalition government for which both he and the Government were harshly punished.

The combined swing against the Coalition at the general election and the subsequent by election caused by McNamara’s resignation, was fifteen percent.

As if to prove it has learnt nothing, the Head Office delegates of the Liberal Party were last week, sent to Benalla to vote for the candidate of Head office’s choice.

As a result of constitutional amendments imposed on the Party by Michael Kroger in his time as State President, forty percent of the preselection delegates are selected from outside the electorate and Head Office needs only to peel off a handful of locals to control preselections.

This may have worked a treat in the past in getting rid of dead wood in metropolitan electorates, however these outsiders are seen as crude and blatant interference in country seats. On this occasion, Head Office was successful in imposing Andrew Roy Dwyer onto the local Branches. Dwyer made no secret of his Head office support which he proudly bragged would deliver him the preselection.

Mr Dwyer’s one and apparently only redeeming virtue to the local Liberals is that he lives in the electorate, albeit not in the town of Benalla.

The overwhelming majority of the local Branch delegates were supporting a well known and popular long serving local member of the Liberal Party, Mr Andrew Randall, who besides his Liberal Party credentials, has deep local community involvement.

In spite of the Head Office influence, Dwyer won the preselection by a mere one vote. Interestingly, although Dwyer was only preselected on Tuesday last, the Administration Committee of the Party rushed the ratification of his endorsement through in a special meeting by telephone hook up on Friday night.

Perhaps Mr Dwyer has the qualifications which are now attractive to the Liberal Party hierarchy and which justify alienating the very Branch people who are expected to get the candidate elected. He is a past member of the Labor Party; he has never previously been a member of the Liberal Party, he has no previous association with the Liberal Party and makes no claims on his dossier to having ever voted for the Liberal Party. Dwyer joined the Party earlier this year for the sole purpose of seeking Party preselection.

In an attempt to show some previous connection with the Liberal Party, however absurdly tenuous, Dwyer informed his preselection delegates that he had once gone to the opening of the electorate office of one of the liberal State Upper House members.

In a remarkably frank or naive admission, Mr Dwyer disclosed on his dossier that he had been appointed to the Victorian Tourism Commission by the Labor Party and sacked by McNamara when McNamara became Tourism Minister following the election of the Kennett Government. You have to wonder what McNamara thought he knew, particularly given that Dwyer claims his sacking was with no “apparent justification.”

It is understood the Liberal Party has made no inquiries of McNamara as to why he sacked Dwyer from the Tourism Commission.

It was as a result of this sacking by a National Party Minister that caused Dwyer to promptly joined the Labor Party who had previously appointed him. Perhaps this explains Mr Dwyer’s’ statement in his dossier that ” I rail against injustice to individuals, especially from the bureaucracy and I will not shirk a stoush.” Lets hope for the Liberal Party’s sake that no one in the Party upsets him between now and election day.

Mr Dwyer’s dossier is as mysterious as his sudden departure from the Victorian Tourism Commission. He writes in his dossier that his education finished in 1976 however his first employment is recorded as 1984. Where was Mr Dwyer and what was he particularly doing during this time? Presumably he was an industrious member of the work force somewhere during these eight blank years but why keep it a secret?

However, all is not lost: Mr Dwyer has informed the Liberal Party that “I have fund raising skills and will be able to assist in generating capital for the campaign.” That is a blessing because it seems given the state of mind of the locals, he will get plenty of opportunity to demonstrate those skills.

You might be tempted to wonder what the Liberal Party is doing endorsing an ex-Labor Party member who has never previously been a member of the Liberal Party, in one of the Coalition’s previous blue ribbon seats, in which less than half the local Branch people want him and with a margin of less than half a percent, must be won for a future Coalition to win government.

Perhaps the new secret weapon of the Victorian Liberal Party is to endorse old Labor Party members in seats winnable to the Liberal Party. At least it gives the Labor voters a choice of voting for either a present or previous Labor member.

Then again, perhaps Dr Napthine and his hapless band are justifiably concentrating on retaining the seats they presently hold. With this shemozzle, it may well be the right strategy

Peter Fray

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