There’s nothing like an election defeat to bring party disunity into the open. Hence Stateline in Victoria led on Friday night with a trenchant attack by Senator Judith Troeth on her opponents in the state’s Liberal Party, the controlling Kroger-Costello group.
There’s no denying the accuracy of her diagnosis:
… we’ve had the cult of the personality, whereas the efforts of and the energies of the party became focused on getting one individual probably, into being Prime Minister.
But Troeth is only telling half the story. While one side in the Victorian Liberal Party has been obsessed with making Peter Costello prime minister, the other side has been equally obsessed with stopping him.
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That would make more sense if they had had an alternative candidate, but at least since the retirement of Peter Reith in 2001 that element has been lacking: the anti-Costello campaign has been purely negative. The elevation of Brendan Nelson just demonstrates how limited the party’s leadership options have become.
This is part of a more general problem in Victoria: both sides, but especially the anti-Kroger group, are in denial about factionalism. When state leader Ted Baillieu says he’s hoping for “An end to the factional era in the Liberal party”, he seems absolutely sincere. In his mind, what his side does is promoting party unity; what the other side does is factionalism.
No political party will ever succeed in abolishing factions. They may change and regroup; they may disappear for a while, but they always come back. In practice, the call to end factions is a call to make one faction dominant.
The most that can be expected is that different groups in the party will accept one another’s legitimacy and learn to share power. Costello’s retirement should provide an opportunity to rein in the excesses of factionalism and temper the view (held on both sides) that internal conflict has to be a fight to the death.
But the prospects don’t look good. Baillieu’s plea for party unity would be more credible if he were not the one who led the fight last year to stop the introduction of proportional representation and retain the winner-take-all system for internal party elections. That alone ensures that internecine warfare will remain a fact of life for the Victorian Liberals.