This morning’s Age turns the spotlight on the Victorian Liberal Party, with a story by Paul Austin quoting Margaret Fitzherbert, candidate for preselection in the state seat of Sandringham, on the need for renewal in the parliamentary party.

Fitzherbert (who is — disclosure — a personal friend, although I note that her application form has evidently been leaked to The Age rather than to me) will face off against incumbent Murray Thompson next week. Because Thompson is a sitting MP, it will be an old-fashioned delegate-based preselection rather than one of the new plebiscites, and sources say Fitzherbert is very much the underdog.

With all respect to Thompson, replacing him is a no-brainer. He has been in parliament for nearly 17 years, has spent minimal time on the front bench and is unlikely to ever return there. A party that is securely in government can afford to carry a certain number of low-performers, but the Victorian Liberals, approaching ten years in opposition and still trailing badly in the polls, desperately need all the talent they can get.

But to echo Kinsley’s Law, the scandal is not the challenges, it’s the MPs who are not being challenged. Out of all the Liberal-held lower house seats, only one MP — Helen Shardey in Caulfield — is retiring, and Fitzherbert is the only one to put her hand up to challenge any of the rest.

I won’t name names, because the problem is systemic rather than personal, but it’s easy to tick off ten or twelve state Liberal members in both houses who are frankly a waste of space. The fact that they want to hold on to their seats is understandable, if regrettable; the fact that no-one was willing to challenge them is an indictment of the party as a whole.

It is a simple truism that, as Fitzherbert says, the party needs “more men and women who are capable of serving as ministers in a succession of future Liberal state governments.” In the Liberal Party, however, uttering truisms can be a hazardous business.

On the federal side, at least, the Victorian Liberals are doing better: four of their safest seats — Aston, Higgins, Kooyong and Wannon — will have new members after the next election. But there has been no tapping of state MPs on the shoulder to let them know that they too would best serve the party by retiring gracefully.

State leader Ted Baillieu has to take prime responsibility for this condition. He seems oblivious to the need for new blood in his ranks; like many leaders before him, but with less excuse than most, he has defended incumbents against criticism and helped to ward of challenges. He is even said to be backing Thompson in Sandringham, even though Fitzherbert is one of Baillieu’s allies.

Preselection contests inevitably involve short-term pain: the publicity distracts from the party’s message and the leader gets a bunch of discontented MPs, while even if the challenges are successful the new blood doesn’t arrive in parliament until after the election.

But a strong leader has to be willing to bear the immediate cost in the interests of their party’s future. So far, that isn’t happening in Victoria.

Peter Fray

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