Few people have seen more of the inside of the Victorian Liberal Party than David Kemp.

When the right took control of the party in 1987, he was tapped to be interim state director. He went on to win a bruising preselection for the safe federal seat of Goldstein, and went straight on to the front bench after the 1990 election.

Kemp was a minister for the first three terms of the Howard government, most notably in higher education and in environment. He retired at the
2004 election, just short of his 63rd birthday.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Kemp also had serious intellectual credentials. He has a PhD from Yale, and was professor of Politics at Monash University in the 1970s, when he produced one of the classics of Australian political literature, Society and electoral behaviour in Australia. (It had been hoped that in retirement he might write an illuminating insider’s account of the Howard government – no-one else is likely to.)

So it must have taken considerable persuasion to convince Kemp to re-enter active politics. But that’s what Peter Costello seems to have done: as this morning’s papers (The Age and Herald Sun) report, Kemp will stand for the party presidency at April’s state council – replacing Russell Hannan, who is retiring through ill health.

This is a considerable coup. The Victorian party is mired in factional warfare, exacerbated by its underwhelming performance at last year’s state election. Both sides have been looking for a candidate who would command enough respect to be a unifying force, while still being identifiably on their side.

For the Kroger-Costello forces, Kemp fits the bill perfectly. Their opponents are understandably less keen, but concede Kemp’s qualifications for the job. State leader Ted Baillieu was quoted saying “I believe the party membership would welcome David’s candidacy”. His key lieutenant David Davis, as The Herald Sun put it, “appeared to give cautious support” to Kemp.

The Baillieu forces had toyed with the idea of pushing former premier Jeff Kennett for the job, but that would have been the equivalent of setting off a medium-sized nuclear device within the Victorian party, and last week Kennett ruled himself out. Barring surprises, it looks as if Kemp will get the job unopposed.

The real question is, why would he want it?

Peter Fray

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