A week or so before the 1995 Bradfield preselection contest between Brendan Nelson and long-standing MP and shadow minister David Connelly, all preselectors received a package from Nelson’s opposition. I came home from work that day to find my mother extremely angry and holding up the paper bag that had arrived in the post. The bag contained a VHS tape, which, she assumed, I had ordered the tape from one of these places in Canberra. She was relieved to find that the tape was very short and merely showed some bloke screaming over a loud hailer: “I have never voted Liberal in my life!.”

I must have attended at least 10 preselections during my decade in the NSW Liberal Party. Some were for marginal state and federal seats, some for local government and some for safe Liberal seats. And they don’t come much safer than the leafy upper North Shore seat of Bradfield, the bluest of blue ribbon seats in NSW.

All 20 candidates in this Saturday’s preselection must be pondering one major question: exactly what do local Liberal Party preselectors in a safe seat look for in a candidate? One thing they rarely look for is ideological purity or some coherent vision. They would tend to agree with what former NSW Premier John Fahey said during the early 1990s: “Vision is bullshit.”

In Bradfield, if you’re interested in party politics, the only party worth joining is the Liberal Party. The only other serious options are the Nationals or Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats. Almost all the “independents” in local governments of the electorate where the Liberals don’t endorse council candidates are all Liberal Party members. Among them are candidates for this Saturday’s preselection.

You’ll find every shade of opinion in local Bradfield branches. These people are true maverick conservatives. And because they more greatly reflect the range of opinion in the broader community, they want someone who will impress the broader community. After all, MPs in safe seats are necessarily prime ministerial material.

Preselectors in an area such as  that aren’t necessarily intimidated by power either. So the fact that you’ve been a ministerial staffer for a few years or worked as one of Rupert Murdoch’s conservative attack dogs is something many millionaire preselectors really couldn’t give a toss about. And if you make an issue of telling people that Paul Keating doesn’t like you, there’s some chance it could backfire among a group of academics, business people and white-collar professionals, who may have too much nuance to assume someone hated by a former Labor PM is necessarily a good local MP for a safe Liberal seat.

After all, the last Bradfield MP was an ALP member for some time but who had runs of the board outside partisan and/or factional politics and/or an MPs office. He already had a high profile as former president of the Australian Medical Association. Had he been a factional hack of a cultural warrior, he probably would have gone back to the ALP or found some other gig outside politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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