The
Victorian Liberal Party, down to 17 seats in the Legislative Assembly
and with almost half of them at risk in November’s state election,
doesn’t have many safe seats at its disposal. But of those it does
have, the most prestigious is unquestionably Malvern, being vacated at the election by former leader Robert Doyle.

Malvern,
the Liberals’ safest seat (10.2%), is in the heart of blue-ribbon
territory; it was held from 1970 to 1982 by Lindsay Thompson, former
Liberal premier. (On his retirement a young Michael Kroger was beaten
for preselection, after then-leader Jeff Kennett allegedly told the
panel that the party already had too many lawyers in parliament.) So
it’s hardly a healthy sign that when nominations closed yesterday the
Liberal Party had only attracted four candidates for endorsement. Rumoured high-flyer contenders such as state AMA president Mark Yates have failed to materialise.

Malvern
forms the core of Peter Costello’s federal electorate of Higgins, so
it’s not surprising that the Kroger-Costello forces are powerful in the
local party. Their preferred candidate is Michael O’Brien, a barrister
and former Costello staffer. [Disclosure: he’s also a personal friend –
I hope that’s not a kiss of death.] His only serious rival is Armadale
branch president Jane Hume, who appears to have the backing of the
anti-Kroger group to which new leader Ted Baillieu belongs.

At
the last state election, the Liberals were criticised for not
preselecting candidates early enough; this time around they have tried
to remedy that, and had almost a full slate of candidates some months
ago. The downside of that is that the process gets disrupted when
sitting members make late decisions to retire. Doyle is the third to do
so, following Victor Perton in Doncaster and Phil Honeywood in
Warrandyte.

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If all three seats had come up at once, there might
have been some prospect of a factional deal to share the spoils.
Instead there was a closely-fought battle in Doncaster, won by
anti-Krogerite Mary Wooldridge, and similarly bruising affairs may now be in line
for Warrandyte and Malvern. Some sources suggest that the ruling group
might be prepared to accept Melbourne city councillor Peter Clarke as
candidate for Warrandyte in return for a clear run for O’Brien in
Malvern, but it remains to be seen whether the two sides can actually
bring themselves to talk to each other.