Despite the prime minister’s “pigs might fly” comment yesterday, no-one is ruling out the chance of an early federal election. On the assumption, however, that the parliament runs its full term, the election timetable risks clashing with next year’s Victorian election, fixed for 27 November.
That creates problems for political parties trying to decide preselections. The ALP is using the difficulty of doing both at once as an excuse to stitch up as much as possible by factional deals without rank-and-file involvement. Meanwhile, the Greens and the Liberals are pressing ahead with more or less simultaneous state and federal preselections: this week, the Victorian Liberal Party opened nominations for the 23 Liberal-held Legislative Assembly seats.
Potentially, this is a much more interesting round of preselections than last time. Even the most reality-challenged Liberals knew that the 2006 election was unwinnable, and indeed many of its own seats were vulnerable (although in the end it held them all). Next year, however, winning government is a serious if slight possibility, so one might think that this would be the time to attract some new talent.
The 23 sitting MPs are a pretty homogeneous bunch. They are overwhelmingly middle-aged Anglo males: only five are women, and only five are under 45 (the median age is about 53). But the most interesting thing is the pattern of service. Six have been there since the 1992 landslide or before; ten were elected for the first time in 2006. Only seven came in at the intervening three elections: the party completely failed to renew itself over more than a decade.
Of the 23, the 10 newcomers from 2006 can be assumed to be fairly secure. So can leader Ted Baillieu (Hawthorn) and deputy Louise Asher (Brighton), as well as prospective challenger Terry Mulder (Polwarth).
Interest will be focused on the remaining 10. In ascending order of age, they are:
Nick Kotsiras, Bulleen (age 50, MP since 1999), Kim Wells, Scoresby (50, 1992), Robert Clark, Box Hill (52, 1988), Martin Dixon, Nepean (53, 1996), Andrew McIntosh, Kew (54, 1999), Murray Thompson, Sandringham (55, 1992), Denis Napthine, South-West Coast (57, 1988), Helen Shardey, Caulfield (64, 1996), Christine Fyffe, Evelyn (64, 1999-2002; 2006) and Ken Smith, Bass (64, 1988)
So far, there are no definite retirements, but Fyffe and Smith are obvious contenders — they and Thompson are the only three not in the shadow ministry. Shardey also pointedly refused to comment on whether she would seek re-endorsement. Napthine, McIntosh and Wells, however, have all reportedly committed to standing again.
In terms of challenges, McIntosh, Thompson and Shardey are generally thought to be the most vulnerable. Wells’s position as shadow treasurer is probably enough to protect him (despite his low-profile performance), and Napthine still has strong local support in a seat that would be difficult to hold without his personal vote.
Moreover, some seats are more desirable than others: other things being equal, no Liberal challenger is going to commit to living in Scoresby or Evelyn when Kew and Caulfield are available.
The Age lists John Roskam, Kelly O’Dwyer and David Southwick as possible new blood. All would be strong candidates, although Southwick’s views on the middle east are so extreme that he thinks Michael Danby is insufficiently pro-Israel. But in the event that an opening appears, many more can be expected to join them.
Baillieu will be exerting all his influence against change: partly because the at-risk MPs are supporters of his, but also because preselection bloodshed is seen as electorally risky. But his party is already living with the consequences of having failed to grasp this particular nettle before.
It’s time to clean out the dead wood, even if it involves some short-term pain.