The announcement made after yesterday’s Liberal Party meeting in Victoria simply said that Ted Baillieu and his leadership team had been re-elected, carefully avoiding any impression of controversy.

But the real story was bound to come out, and it is all in this morning’s papers, in The Age and The Australian.

Baillieu’s supporters tried to replace deputy upper house leader Andrea Coote with David Davis. Davis won the ballot, whereupon upper house leader Phil Davis spat the dummy and announced that would he not work with him – “treacherous” and “unreliable” were apparently the words used. The Baillieu forces backed down: David Davis withdrew, and Coote was re-elected unopposed.

The sheer bastardry of one side in this story is matched by the arrogance and tactical stupidity of the other. Leaving Phil Davis in place but changing his deputy was apparently the Baillieu group’s idea of a compromise. But in the real world, compromises are made by actual negotiation, not on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. This one was never going to work.

Since, as the vote showed, the Baillieu group has the numbers, their logical aim would have been to replace Phil Davis, the most bitter and intransigent of their opponents. The deputy vote could have been a way of doing that, but they failed to go through with it.

Politics is not for the faint-hearted. John Howard, placed in a very similar situation in 1985, stood his ground and ended up becoming leader. Baillieu and David Davis blinked.

The reports say that the margin was only one vote, 21-20. If that’s true, it shows Baillieu’s control to be unexpectedly shaky. But it also shows how the numbers could change: candidates whose election was still in doubt were allowed to vote (another reason for not meeting in the first week), and on the latest figures there are likely to be only 38 Liberals in the new parliament, not 41.

So Baillieu’s new term is off to a bad start. As Paul Austin says this morning, “The enormity of what Philip Davis has done should not be underestimated.”

In the new finely balanced upper house, all who deal with them now know that Andrea Coote and Phil Davis are in an important sense not part of Baillieu’s “leadership team”: one was defeated for her position in a partyroom ballot, and the other refused to work with the party’s preferred candidate for deputy.

Peter Fray

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