Senate President Margaret Reid has been unceremoniously dumped but the race is now on to take her Senate spot, as Lisa Liberal reports.

Senator Paul Calvert, an affable but dull hack from Tasmania defeated the popular and more capable Senator Ferguson from South Australia, eighteen votes to thirteen. The original vote was 12 Ferguson, 10 Calvert and 9 Reid. The overwhelming majority of Reid’s votes went to Calvert. Had Reid led Calvert on the first round, Ferguson would have been elected with the majority of Calvert’s preferences. Calvert’s lack of ability can only further reflect on the standard and performance of the Senate.

Ferguson from the right faction is closely aligned to Nick Minchin. This all says something about Minchin’s influence in Liberal Party Senate affairs or more particularly his interest in keeping a weather eye on internal parliamentary politics. Calvert is unaligned and manages to keep out of factional wars. It appears Ferguson’s opponent from the left dishonestly painted the contest as a faction one which damaged Ferguson.

It is also fair to say that getting rid of Calvert from the Whip’s position opens up opportunities for low achievers. It is also realistic to recognise that the Whip is in a unique position to grant favours and Calvert has been generous to a fault.

Such is the dysfunctional state of the internal workings of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party, that Reid was incapable of divining that she no longer had the numbers or the confidence of her Liberal Senate colleagues. Equally, she was not served well by her Senate Leader, Robert Hill who would most certainly have known that the axe was about to fall on Reid.

Hill should have had the good grace and good manners to have tapped Reid on the shoulder well prior to the vote so at least to allow her the dignity of retiring in her own time and at the same time to have allowed her to have attempted to have negotiated a sinecure upon her departure from the parliament.

Reid on the other hand has little to complain about. She has had eight unexpected years in the third most senior position in Australia which offers perks and a salary package greater than those on offer to members of the Ministry. Her term has seen her as a very regular overseas traveller and she now leaves office with an enormous superannuation pay out.

Ironically, all this fell into Reid’s hands by sheer chance. Reid was the beneficiary of Noel Crichton-Browne’s fall from grace. Crichton-Browne was immediately prior to Reid’s election, Deputy President of the Senate and had the numbers to have won a ballot for the Presidency. When he was forced by Howard to step down from the position of the Deputy Presidency over allegations of domestic violence, Reid replaced him and went on to win the Presidency.

Reid’s period as President has been pedestrian and mediocre. She has made no recorded contribution to the position of President of the Senate and little will change with Calvert’s promotion.

No doubt Reid will shortly leave the parliament. To stay will only cost her in superannuation payments while her superannuation payout will not increase correspondingly.

The main game in ACT Liberal politics is who will replace Reid. The full field is obviously not yet known. Those believed to be considering nominating are Gerry Wheeler, an advisor to Prime Minister Howard, Kate Carnell, a previous Leader of the ACT government and Gary Humphries, also a previous ACT Chief Minister. No doubt more people will nominate, however we do know a little about the current pretenders.

Gary Humphries began his political career as a staffer for Senator Amanda Vanstone who during her period as a Shadow Minister was responsible for ACT matters. In those low tax, well serviced and halcyon days of Canberra living, Vanstone and Humphries championed the ACT mini-parliament in spite of the fact that ACT referendums had twice seen the people of Canberra overwhelmingly reject the proposal for self government.

The Federal Labor government wanted to dump its financial responsibilities for the management of ACT taxes, infrastructure and services, lock stock and barrel into the lap of the locals. In this endeavour, Vanstone and Humphries championed this poisonous proposal in the Coalition party room.

Humphries and Vanstone were in part, architects of the absurd quasi Hare-Clark ACT voting system that has invited universal ridicule and saw the Red Ripe Tomato Party, the Anti Party Party and the No Self Government Party all contest the first election. As a result of the absurd voting system, The tin pot ACT elections produced the longest voting papers in Australia and took the longest period in any election in Australia to establish a result.

Ironically, the ACT has two Senators it is not entitled to and a Parliament it does not want. Following the Whitlam government passing legislation which provided two Senators for both the ACT and the Northern Territory, the non Labor States appealed to the High Court on the grounds that there was no constitutional power for such appointments.

The appeal failed by a majority of one. Following a change of composition of the High Court, the Chief Justice invited further consideration of the original ruling. Western Australia and Queensland accepted the invitation and on this occasion, by a majority of one, the High Court found in favour of the States, that the Territories were ineligible for Senate representation.

However one of the Hon Justices who had found originally in favour of the States changed his vote, expressing the view that judgments of the High Court should not be exposed to the changing composition of the High Court.

However, in respect to the ACT mini-government, following the enabling legislation for the formation of an ACT government, in a remarkable coincidence, Humphries became the first beneficiary of his own handywork. He obtained a Liberal Party endorsement for one of the ACT parliamentary seats and was elected to the first ACT government.

Humphries was widely regarded as a poor quality Minister with his period as Health Minister little more than embarrassing. His period as Chief Minister was notable for his bumbling and rambling defence for the failings of his government. Humphries has the knack of looking his best in opposition. He will be vigorously supported by Vanstone and her factional apprentice, Christopher Pyne.

A further twist in the saga is that Humphries is widely regarded as having lost the support of the majority of his ACT parliamentary colleagues and rather than dump him, they may be inclined to assist him in his Senatorial ambitions.

There has been considerable speculation about Kate Carnell standing for the Senate however this seems improbable after her departure in disgrace over the Bruce Stadium scandal which saw her forced from office, not to mention one or two other little scandals on the way to her ultimate demise. Carnell has been described, not unfairly, as a member of the left however her personal politics are even more obscure than at first appearance.

Prior to entering politics, while working in her Red Hill pharmacy, journalist Louise Dodson entered as a customer. In the course of the conversation, Dodson asked Ms Carnell had she thought of entering politics to which Carnell replied that yes she had but what Party did Dodson suggest she join.

The third person often referred to as a candidate for Reid’s Senator position is Gerry Wheeler, an adviser to the Prime Minister. To the extent it is relevant, Wheeler has the electoral advantage of having being born in Canberra and having spent his whole life in the ACT.

There is little doubt about Wheeler’s political or intellectual skills. He has a considerable pedigree in political contests so this battle will not be new ground for him. He is a right faction person and often described by the left as a far right supporter.

Wheeler has one major and obvious disadvantage compared with the candidates from the left. Members of the left such as Vanstone and Pyne will have no hesitation in making this an ideological contest and both will wade into the battle up to their elbows.

Wheeler is unlikely to be similarly blessed. Howard is not known for supporting or working for his own except on rare occasions. If Howard washes his hands in this contest and vacates the ground to the left, Wheeler will find it very difficult to win what will in part become a one sided contest. The commitment of the left to victory at any price should never be underestimated.

It is early days and no doubt we will see the emergence of new candidates and the flowing of fresh blood.

Peter Fray

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