And the loser from Wentworth is, no, not Peter King…John Howard.

Funny. 

We never knew
John Howard supporters and Liberal right-wingers were such big F Scott
Fitzgerald fans – but since a bit after 9:00 pm on Saturday night all we’ve
heard from them is “Let me tell you about the very rich. 

They are different from you and me”.

Malcolm Turnbull’s smashing win in the Wentworth
preselection – and it can be seen as nothing else – is yet another upset the
Prime Minister does not need.

It does not just threaten the Prime Minister himself, but it
also threatens the right stranglehold on the Liberal Party that his personal
dominance – until the last couple of weeks – came to represent.

Let the spinning begin.

This has scarcely been your ordinary preselection – and
Wentworth is not an ordinary seat, we will be told. 

Look at the suburbs it takes in – Double Bay, Darling Point,
Bellevue Hill, Paddington, Woollahra, Vaucluse, Bondi, Bronte and Watson’s Bay.

Yuppies, queers, trendies and cokeheads. 

Or just cokehead trendy yuppie queers.

It’s one of those posh Liberal seats – like North Sydney,
Kooyong and Higgins in Victoria, Ryan in Queensland, Sturt in South Australia
and Tangey in the West – where the chattering classes voted for a republic.

It’s not – to use Howard’s the right-wingers favourite wedge
word – “mainstream”.

It’s packed with “elites”. 

Jesus, Paul Keating likes shopping for antiques smack bang in the very
middle of it.

Dear oh dear oh dear. 

No matter what his allies and the right wing say, this is yet another
disaster for the PM. 

A very high
profile, internal disaster.

It didn’t have to be.

The Wentworth preselection consisted of two moderates
fighting over one spot.

Some silly, greedy right wingers – Kerry Jones, we’re
talking about people like you here – and their pals, however, just couldn’t
help themselves.

They’d already creamed Malcolm Turnbull and the ARM back at
the republic referendum in 1999, but wanted to come back for another go.

Then it was politics. 

This time it was personal. 

Bad
move.

They turned a clash between moderates into a competition
that, inevitably, was seen as a left versus right fight, a fight between
monarchists and republicans, modernisers against conservatives, new blood
pushing out the old guard.

And who are seen as the two most senior manifestations of
these different points of view in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party? 

Er… 

Yes! 

A Mr Howard and a Mr
Costello.

Spectacular!

Turnbull immediately saw the danger. 

His first comments were: 

‘There is nothing more powerfully evocative
of the broad church that is the Liberal Party than the fact that John Howard and
I could have had a difference of opinion over the republic, and are now together
working in harness to ensure the return of his Government”.

Quite a valiant effort.

He went on to pour oil on troubled waters – oil being quite
a lot nicer than what you usually find in the surf across the road from the
preselection venue, the mega-kitsch Swiss Grand Hotel on Bondi’s Campbell
Parade – with:

“I’m very humbled by the trust and confidence the Liberal
Party has put in me – it’s a great responsibility to be selected by our party
to be a candidate for a seat in the House of Representatives.

“Democratic processes are contentious. They’re
sometimes messy, a little bit untidy, and people have strong feelings, but the
most important thing is that people have a say.”

His opponents have not been so restrained.

Alexander Downer showed all his political tact when he told
Laurie Oakes on Sunday that “You never know how people will go until they get
into parliament”.

“The history of the Parliament is littered with
examples of people who have come here with low expectations and done
extraordinarily well and those that come with high expectations and have
struggled…

“All people when they come into Parliament need a bit of
experience on the backbench understanding how the party room works, how the
committee system works. I think that is the important – important grounding
that they need.”

Talk up the division, Lex. 

There’s a bright boy.

Over on Meet the Press, King’s most senior parliamentary
backer, Liberal Senate Leader Robert Hill was obviously upset – but at least
more restrained. 

His message was that
Turnbull is talented and ambitious, but… 

“Well, he’s very keen to do well, obviously. And I think that with that
comes a certain discipline”.

Downer did have one point, however, about high profile
candidates.

The Wentworth preselection is one of the most dramatic
preselections the Liberal Party has seen since the fall of the Fraser
Government.

While spectacular, the idiot acts of bastardry in the West
by the Noel Crichton-Browne faction in the lead up to the 1996 election against
Paul Filing and Alan Rocher are irrelevant. 

They were the Libs in the West being Libs in the West.

Three other preselections, however, offer some pointers
about what might happen now.

The first ties in with Downer’s comments – and, ironically,
concerns a fellow right-winger from South Australia.

Back in 1989, a convoy of journos and TV satellite trucks
made the long drive to Bordertown on the South Australian/Victorian divide when
the high profile former head of the National Farmers Federation, Ian McLachlan,
took on sitting member, James Porter, for the Liberal preselection for the seat
of Barker.

Bordertown was the birthplace of the then Prime Minister,
Bob Hawke, and a statue of the great man decorates the main street.

McLachlan won – and naturally all the teevs used the Hawke
statue as the backdrop for their piece to camera as they speculated if the
career of another Prime Minister had begun that day.

What happened? 

McLachlan served just three terms. 

He panicked in the face of John Hewson’s zero tariff policy as shadow
industry minister in the lead up to the 1993 election, the Hindmarsh Island
papers scandal forced him from the Opposition frontbench in 1994, he became
Defence Minister in 1996, served without distinction for two years and retired
from the Parliament.

Turnbull is being written up as a future PM – yet could his
fate be similar?

The other two preselections go together.

They are the dramatic Michael Kroger purges that saw
timeserver Roger Shipton and the sodden Ian McPhee thrown out in 1989 in favour
of the young Peter Costello and David Kemp.

What did they result in? John Howard being thrown from the Liberal leadership.

Peter King’s backers, in their efforts to build up supporter
for their boy before Saturday’s big event, have made it completely and
unambiguously certain that the Wentworth result can only be interpreted as a
humiliation for the Prime Minister.

Look at the briefings they sprinkled round – like this one
in Herald that morning:

“At a private function in Darling Point on Monday night, 100
King supporters gathered under a marquee to hear someone else who is assumed to
be prime ministerial material – Tony Abbott [whoops – the Monks been sucked
down, too] – speak in support of his old rugby mate King.

“Abbott spent the first half of his speech praising King.
The second half was more pointed. King was a team player, a great supporter of
John Howard. Ergo, Turnbull was not.

“In fact, he was a sore loser. He quoted something Turnbull
said on the night the republican referendum was lost against him: ‘Whatever
else John Howard achieves, history will remember him for only one thing – he
was the prime minister who broke the nation’s heart.’

“King supporters argue that Turnbull’s past utterances – for
instance, that Howard was ‘uncomfortable with many features of modern
Australia’ – will be used by Labor against Howard.”

Or this one in the Oz on Friday:

“The King camp has gone to great lengths to point out that
Turnbull’s comments in the aftermath of the 1999 republic referendum — specifically
that John Howard ‘was the Prime Minister who broke the nation’s heart’ — would
be grade A fodder for the Opposition in an election year.

“At a dinner with preselectors last Monday night,
monarchist, federal health minister and prominent conservative Tony Abbott is
understood to have warned preselectors against rewarding Turnbull with a seat
after making such comments. Another King supporter, local member Philip Gibson,
has also circulated a list of Turnbull’s previous quotes to preselectors with the
warning, ‘The temptation would be just too great for Latham’s people’.”

Latham – and his people – haven’t needed to lift a finger.

John Howard’s own have just dealt the Prime Minister a great
whack of a blow that he doesn’t need – and has only copped thanks to their
stupidity.

He has lost authority – personal and political. 

In his own party and in the eyes of the
public.

Once again he has been weakened.

Once again he looks like yesterday’s man.

And we’re only two months into this election year. 

What a ripper! 

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]. 

Peter Fray

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