Back in 2006, after Victorian senator Julian McGauran defected to the Liberals, it was seen as a killer blow to the National Party. But three years later, the Nationals can be seen to have done rather well out of it.
Contrary to expectations (including mine), the Nationals have kept the safe second spot on a joint Coalition ticket for the next election — that was the price they extracted for a new Coalition agreement at state level. Then last Friday evening, the Liberals obligingly put McGauran back on the ticket as well, in the number three spot. According to sources, he defeated Ross Fox by a quite comfortable 65-44 on the final ballot.
It was never supposed to happen like this. In August 2006, after McGauran appeared on ABC Stateline to justify his defection, I commented that, “The already slim chance that they would preselect him again when his current term expires in 2011 now looks even slimmer.” Jeff Kennett expressed the same view: “I would find it very hard to believe that the Liberal Party would prefer Julian over a range of other candidates who have been Liberals for years.”
The vote split the Kroger-Costello group down the middle: Peter Costello himself backed McGauran, but many of his usual supporters, led by Senator Michael Ronaldson (who was re-endorsed in the top position), were supporting Fox. The divide broadly coincided with that between supporters of Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull in the last leadership ballot, and between supporters of Julian Sheezel and Jason Aldworth in the hypothetical (and now rather unlikely) Higgins preselection.
So if the Coalition ticket again elects three senators, there will have been a straight swap of retiring moderate Judith Troeth for a new National Party senator. That’s a significant lurch to the right for the Victorian division, showing again how being the anti-Turnbull puts Costello in a very different ideological position from being the anti-Howard.
It also shows two other things about today’s Liberal Party: the power of incumbency, and the power of money. Even though he had never been elected as a Liberal, McGauran was treated as an incumbent, and the stigma against challenging incumbents evidently deterred many qualified opponents. The Liberals are also facing a major financial crunch to fund next year’s state and federal elections, and McGauran, whose family owns most of Gippsland, traded unashamedly on the cash that he could potentially bring with him.
But before anyone gets carried away by talk of a National Party revival, recall that most of its recent victories — including this one — have come from outmanoeuvring the Liberals, not from actual approval by the voters. In the current climate, getting three Coalition senators up in Victoria will be a mammoth task. So although the Liberals have failed to put McGauran out to pasture, it’s very likely that come the election, the job will be done for them.