Once again, Crikey’s correspondent was kept out of a Liberal Party state council meeting. But this time it was nothing personal: yesterday’s special meeting of the Victorian division was closed to all the media for debate on constitutional reform.

This was a somewhat paradoxical beginning for a reform plan designed to open up the party’s processes. But it worked: the plan was approved overwhelmingly. The Victorian Liberals have taken a giant leap into the unknown.

From now on, all party members will be able to vote in lower house preselections, branches will be all but abolished in favor of electorate-based groupings, internal elections will use proportional representation, and state council will be open to all members to speak and vote on policy. The changes are intended to boost membership and re-energise the party, but nobody really knows what effect they will have.

Politics being what it is, there’s been less discussion of what the reforms will do than of who was supporting or opposing them. Today’s papers present the vote unashamedly as “a big victory for state leader Ted Baillieu“, but on the surface it’s actually a win for his enemies, state president David Kemp and the Kroger-Costello grouping, who conceived and promoted the reforms.

Baillieu and his supporters have been at best lukewarm on the plan, with several of them lobbying actively against it. Sitting state MPs have had particular concerns about losing control of their local fiefdoms. But a last-minute deal on Senate preselections (don’t ask why the state leader should care most about the Senate) seems to have brought Baillieu on side, and his speech to delegates yesterday is credited with bringing around many of the uncommitted.

While a defeat for the plan – which up till last week looked quite likely, with even its supporters giving themselves only a 50-50 chance – would have been a tactical victory for the Baillieu group, it would also have been a signal for a major escalation of factional warfare. Whether deliberately or not, Baillieu may have secured the best outcome for party unity, enabling his troops to direct their full attention to the 2010 state election.

The rest of the country will be looking closely to see what lessons can be learned from the Victorian reforms. They may find them not just in the changes themselves but in the way of making them – a “big bang” approach that typically only works when an organisation has plumbed the depths of desperation. After years in denial, the Victorian division turned out to be willing to take that step.

But the ultimate test of the changes will be what they do for the party’s policies and philosophy. A report in yesterday’s Age highlights the problem: not so much factional conflict, but a growing cleavage between the party’s leaders (on both sides) and its more conservative rank-and-file.

Will giving more voice to ordinary members just hand power to conservative ideologues? Or will it lead to a membership influx of more mainstream Victorians who will swamp the extremists? The answer to that question could determine the future of Ted Baillieu and his fractious followers.

Peter Fray

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