Two years ago, Crikey got some publicity when its correspondent, yours truly, was denied entry to the Victorian Liberal Party’s state council. But the Liberals later apologised for the “misunderstanding”, and this year there was no problem when I attended at the weekend.
There wasn’t a lot of excitement. Former federal minister David Kemp was elected unopposed as state president (replacing Russell Hannan, retiring due to ill health), and the four vice-presidents, all more or less supportive of the ruling Kroger-Costello group, were elected by large margins. (Voting figures are never announced, but you can usually find out by asking around.)
The new administrative committee, however, will include several members hostile to the ruling group, including Bev McArthur (wife of federal MP Stewart), who failed in her bid for a vice-presidency but got both herself and her running-mate elected to admin committee. This was one artefact of the party’s peculiar block-preferential voting system; a move last year to introduce democracy in internal elections narrowly failed to win the required two-thirds majority.
As usual, there were a few firebrands advocating total war against their rivals, but factional conflict in general seems to have abated. There’s a growing sense of how absurd it is for the relationship between the organisation and parliamentary leader to be poisoned by personal disputes of ten or 15 years ago.
Most of all, there’s a sense that leader Ted Baillieu and the Kroger-Costello forces, like it or not (and neither likes it very much), are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future, and therefore had better learn how to work together.
Both Kemp and state director Julian Sheezel went out of their way to praise Baillieu’s leadership, with Kemp describing him as “a man of great talent, ability and leadership skills.” Baillieu returned the favor yesterday, saying “I was delighted when David answered the call” to be president.
But the big unknown in the party is the effect of this year’s federal election. Sheezel said “we have a real fight on our hands”, and, although it never really came to the surface, there’s at least a dim awareness among the party’s leading lights that defeat for the Howard government could have huge and incalculable consequences.
If the government loses, will Costello become opposition leader? Would a party leader, albeit in opposition, have more influence in his state than an incumbent treasurer? And could a Rudd government in Canberra change the equation in Victorian politics enough to put a Baillieu government on the agenda, with all that would mean for his power within the party?