Yesterday, Crikey examined the long and winding road to ALP preselection, with the conclusion that it was almost impossible to snare a seat in federal parliament unless you were fiercely loyal to a faction, a morally-compromised former rock star, or both.

But it seems that across the benches in the Liberal Party the situation is almost as bad. Despite the “democracy” on display in Bradfield last Saturday, the grassroots doily conventions have been steadily eroded in favour of hand-picked or factionally-“flagged” candidates. In most states, hopefuls will have already jumped through numerous social hoops and fronted “pre-pre-selection” selection committees designed to weed out the rabble.

Just like Labor’s preference for industrial officers and backroom numbers men, the idea of a Thatcher-loving shopkeeper rising through the Liberal ranks has been eclipsed by blue-chip blue bloods like Kelly O’Dwyer in Higgins and Peter Dutton in Dickson/McPherson. Echoing the ALP, this is defended in terms of securing “talent”, with the rank-and-file traditions of the Menzies era very much a secondary concern. The expectation that protected candidates like Dutton can legitimately trample over local branches is actively encouraged, with the assistance of the Canberra press gallery.

One recent exception has been the Victorian division, which under the tutelage of rugged elder David Kemp, resolved that preselections would be decided via a 90% grassroots vote (although this is lowered if the electorate in question contains insufficient members). But despite the hundreds of loyalists who fronted up in Higgins, the stoush was still played out between two candidates — a millionaire banker and a buttoned-up lawyer. Regardless of the process, the outcome would have almost certainly been the same.

If the Labor party has its union hacks and backroom staffers, the Liberals have their own version in the form of Ms O’Dwyer, a cardboard cut-out of what a Liberal candidate should be. By 26, she was in Costello’s office.

Like the ALP, direct federal intervention, usually carried out through state councils, is far from a rarity. The WA division, overriding the candidate selection committee, has twice saved the bacon of Dennis Jensen in Tangney. In 2007, the NSW state council, on the urging of John Howard, intervened to protect Pat Farmer in Macarthur from the advances of local warlord Charlie Lynn and his minions scattered across Sydney’s stacked south-western suburbs. Also in 2007, Howard also intervened to oust the preselected candidate Michael Towke in Cook favour of the unaligned Scott Morrison.

With Dutton set to front the McPherson locals on Saturday, the Liberals clearly still have the jump on the government’s pre-selection preparations for 2010. Here’s the state of play around the rest of the country.

New South Wales: Last Saturday’s Bradfield preselection threw up 17 candidates who were put through their paces in round-table discussions by 111 electors sourced from local branches and party officials, in, according to The Australian, a “vertiginously democratic” process of mutli-ballot voting.

Still, the preselectors didn’t escape influence from the state division, which conducted telephone polls of local voters to see which of the lucky 17 clicked. The results were then disseminated.

The NSW Libs also have a “nomination review committee” designed to vet candidates on grounds of character or ethics. This process was widely seen to be abused to protect Senator Marise Payne of the left from challenge by Scot McDonald of the right ahead of the 2007 election, an operation apparently conducted by Bill Heffernan at the instigation of John Howard. And under a recent rule change, Barry O’Farrell and Malcolm Turnbull have enacted “emergency powers” to handpick candidates for key NSW seats, in a direct echo of Kevin Rudd’s notorious five-man flying squad. Apparently the provision is only supposed to be used “sparingly”.

Victoria: Legislative Assembly and House of Representative seats are determined by a vote of all party members in an electorate, subject to two years’ continuous membership. David Kemp’s “future’s review” has apparently led to a new “buoyancy” in state preselections, where previously a central panel comprising party officials and worked at the behest of the factions. The old branch delegate system, in which candidates faced a panel of around 80 members and party officials has been replaced by Kemp’s all-in talkfest. Clearly better than NSW, but critics say stacking of the type witnessed in Wentworth may become easier as the implications of the 1-vote 1-value system become clear. The Costello/Kennett factional dynamic shows little sign of abating.

Queensland (Liberal National Party): The party may seek nominations by advertisement, invitation to federal or state electorate councils, personal invitation to prospective candidates or any other method deemed appropriate. Interestingly, applicants must submit a non-refundable nomination fee or $1000, “or any such other fee as may be fixed by By-Law by State Council”. State Council decides whether federal lower house candidates are to be selected by a Selection Committee (the “default” option), its own choice, or a plebiscite.

Plebiscites are conducted by preferential ballot, and are open to all members over 18 who have been financial for 12 months before the closure of nominations, plus other members State Council allows to participate “for special reasons”.

A Selection Committee consists of the state executive plus the federal divisional or state electoral council, provided the latter are in the majority. The vote is conducted by exhaustive ballot. According the regs, “State Council shall have the right to endorse or refuse to endorse any candidate selected by a Selection Committee, after consultation with the Federal Divisional Council or State Electorate Council concerned”.

About 200 local LNP members will vote for a candidate to succeed the outgoing Margaret May in the Gold Coast seat of McPherson on Saturday. Encouragingly, Dutton is no certainty.

Western Australia: The State Council sets the date for calling for applications and the closure date for their receipt. The State Director must give notice of this to local branches, divisions and clubs, and — “except where an emergency has been declared by State Executive” — advertise the fact in newspapers chosen by the Management Executive.

The “default” option for federal lower house and all state preselections involves a Selection Committee consisting of the chairman or deputy chairman of the Candidate Selection Committee, randomly chosen from members residing in the electorate (30 per cent of the total) and delegates from State Council (20 per cent of the total), Divisional Conferences, branches, Young Liberal Movement branches and tertiary institution Liberal clubs. Alternatively, state council may allow all financial members of branches within the electorate who live or work in the electorate to participate, in place of the randomly chosen members and delegates from branches, Young Liberal Movement branches and tertiary institution Liberal clubs.

For the Senate, the selection committee consists of the chairman or deputy chairman of the Candidate Selection Committee and the State Council. However, State Council may in any circumstance delegate to the State Executive or the Campaign Committee authority to endorse a candidate, or make its own choice if an “emergency” exists which makes the Selection Committee process “impractical”.

South Australia : Candidates nominate for a lower house or Senate seat and are grilled before a candidate review committee. The “3, 4 or 5” remaining candidates, according to the party, then go to preselection. For prospective Senators or South Australian MLCs, state council votes on the matter. For lower-house positions, “all members” of the party in the relevant seat attend a meeting where a preferential vote is carried out. However, the delicate jousting can be cut short on a whim — with the approval of the Executive, a troublesome candidate can be unilaterally removed by the state director.

Tasmania: Apple Isle candidates submit an application form, which is assessed by a 6-candidate selection committee made up of party members in the electorate concerned. Pending approval, applications attend a preselection meeting where any member for longer than 12 months can vote. The state executive can override candidates it considers unsuitable. It’s a similar process for Senators, except the choosing is done by a special Senate selection committee. In the recent preselection round, just 2 candidates nominated in each Tasmanian electorate, with former Television presenter Steve Titmus triumphing over David Fry in Bass. Fry blamed anti-conservative forces among the 96 electors for his defeat.

Northern Territory: The newly-renamed Country Liberals advertise for preselection in the Northern Territory News for preslections for Solomon, Lingiari and the two Territory Senators. The candidates are required to supply a tailored CV (“not just a rehashed job application from the top drawer”, according the CL’s state director) at which point the party conducts a criminal record check, details their financial circumstances and demands three character referees. Rubber-stamped hopefuls then address a meeting of the central council comprising 50 people and a preferential vote is taken. All potential grassroots impact is filtered through the central council.

Australian Capital Territory — The party relies on a plebiscite of members drawn from the electorates. Crikey contacted the party’s state director to outline the process in detail but he didn’t get back before deadline. Information will be added here as soon as it comes to hand.

Tomorrow: so you want to stand for a minor party …

Peter Fray

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