The Liberal insiders are coming out of the woodwork on the comparison between Wentworth in 2004 and earlier similar struggles in 1996.

Rob Shilkin, like dozens of other Young Liberals in 1996, was involved in the Liberal campaigns for Moore and Curtin because the WA Young Liberals were then heavily aligned with the right wing faction of the party, of which Noel Crichton-Browne was the spiritual leader; and it was a former Young liberal Paul Stevenage who was the endorsed Liberal candidate for Moore. Shilkin, who was just an ordinary YL foot-soldier at the time, tells it as it happened, but his SMH article omits much that is relevant as well.

It would be almost impossible for Crikey readers to recreate and imagine the odium that NCB and his faction attracted in West Australian public opinion at that time. To admit at a cocktail party in Nedlands or a gallery-opening in Cottesloe that you were in the NCB wing of the Liberal Party was like telling someone you had leprosy or believed that small children should be dropped from great heights for fun! Noel’s subsequent reinvention as a political sage has been slow and grudging.

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In point of fact, Rocher lost preselection in Curtin because he was lazy – he’d been there for 18 years, and didn’t even have an office in the
electorate; Filing was a much truer factional victim – his branches were dominated by NCB loyalists who despised him. But the local media portrayed both preselections as the same kind of thing: bitter struggles between good and evil, with the successful candidates as the spawn of the great satan himself, NCB. By the time of the election, Noel had already been forced to resign his own preselection, and had been expelled from the party: whatever idiot at Menzie House thought that would stop the criticism was badly mistaken – it heightened the contempt for the party’s endorsed candidates, that they were seen to be the love-children of somebody who had been so publicly disgraced.

Each endorsed candidate had his own image problems too: Stevenage, the candidate in Moore, was a former Young Liberal – barely 30 years old; he hardly looked 20. At the time, the Young Liberal Movement was portrayed in The West Australian, the State’s monopoly newspaper, as a nerdier but nastier version of the Hitler Youth, with worse fashion sense. Stevenage was so unpopular he actually ran third! – behind Labor and Filing.

Ken Court, the candidate in Curtin, while a successful businessman, suffered from the crippling burden of being the Premier’s brother, and therefore was assumed to be nothing more than the product of nepotism. The Court family were ‘lower middle class social climbers’ so far as many voters in Curtin were concerned. Court easily won the primary vote with 39%, but after preferences, he climbed only to 42%, and Rocher on 29% almost doubled his vote with preferences to reach 57% 2PP.

Finally, it was the year of independents in WA. Labor were having their own problems in Kalgoorlie where expelled MHR, Graeme Campbell, ran as an independent. The Liberals endorsed an Aboriginal former public servant – not exactly a choice calculated to maximise their vote – unsurprisingly they ran third, and Campbell was elected on liberal preferences.

There are therefore many contrasts with Wentworth.

Channel 7 aside, 2004 is not the year of independents.

However bitter the Wentworth preselection struggle might have been portrayed – it was a fair fight, and perceived to be a fair fight – and the guy with the most supporters won. The loser of the fight was no angel, but he winner of a similar battle against his predecessor only a few years earlier. Moreover, the winner of the fight is not, and is not seen to be, anyone’s stooge or the plaything of any faction of the party.

And, as your “senior labor staffer” rightly observes, Turnbull has Howard’s personal support (whereas Allan Rocher, the MHR for Curtin who lost preselection) was was one of John Howard’s closest personal friends – current Howard-office heavyweight, Tony Nutt, is a former Rocher-staffer; and when Rocher eventually lost to Julie Bishop, Howard made him Australian consul-general in Los Angeles. Nobody seriously expects that King would get any such favours!

It is, however, folly to imagine that the Labor candidate and the Labor Party will himself decide the outcome. If Labor doesn’t do the right thing by their supporters and run dead, the voters will do it for him.

Tactical voting was alive and well in Moore and Curtin in 1996. Each endorsed Liberal candidate was telling everyone he thought would listen and keep it quiet – to cast a first preference for Labor, to try to ensure Labor didn’t run third. It didn’t work: thousands of Labor supporters deserted their man, and leapt at the chance to defeat their eternal enemy the Liberals, by voting directly for an independent liberal.

It is going to be very hard for Malcolm Turnbull. He could get 45% of the primary vote and still lose. The greens and democrats will probably preference King directly, bypassing their usual ally. Only a strong Labor campaign can save Turnbull in my view.

From another liberal campaign worker in Moore and Curtin in 1996 – ah, those were the days!

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