Indications are that the Liberal Party will elect former minister and deputy leader Peter Reith as its new federal president at tomorrow’s federal council meeting. But if the unexpected happens and incumbent Alan Stockdale keeps his job, Reith will have mostly his own supporters to blame.

Stockdale appears to be notably lacking in high profile advocates, apart from the ever-reliable Nick Minchin — and Minchin, on the point of retirement, lacks the clout that he once had. Although today’s Australian claims that “Mr Stockdale still has some heavy hitters in his corner”, the best it could come up with to quote was Kevin Andrews.

But that term, “high profile”, is the clue to Reith’s problem.

Traditionally the party organisation is not supposed to have a high profile, and the election of a president is not supposed to attract media attention. The extensive coverage over the past fortnight will draw delegates’ attention to the risks of having a publicity hound in the job — or at least so Stockdale is hoping.

Amanda Vanstone probably didn’t do Reith any favours on Monday by taking the contest into the newspapers. But that was nothing compared to Peter Van Onselen on Wednesday, not just pushing Reith but doing so on the grounds of policy — the very thing the party most wants its officials to stay away from.

Persistent reports say that Tony Abbott is privately supporting Reith, but if he is he must have had doubts on being told by Van Onselen that he “needs a figure such as Reith running the party organisation to remind him what his priorities should be.” It’s no surprise that Stockdale seized on the story, saying the media would “salivate” over a “media star federal president”.

Most commentators are more familiar with the Labor Party, where the organisational wing has traditionally had a much more prominent role.

Party officials have given orders to state and federal leaders, and although those days are well past, a residual prominence and prestige still attach to the jobs.

But the Liberal Party doesn’t work like that. Even at state level its officials are expected to stay mostly in the background, and the federal president is more shadowy still since the federal organisation has so little power over the state divisions.

Its federal presidents have often wielded considerable influence behind the scenes, but only one — John Elliott, president from 1987 to 1990 — was a target of media attention in his own right.

That experience almost tore the party apart, and no one wants to repeat it. In 1993 the safe hands of Tony Staley were preferred to the illustrious but uncontrollable Malcolm Fraser (Fraser withdrew rather than contest a ballot he would have lost), and in 2008 the ambitions of Alexander Downer for the top job were politely but firmly quashed.

Reith is vastly better placed than Fraser was. Although he has been out of parliament and the public eye for almost a decade, his party connections are still very strong — as is shown by the public letter of support from all four vice-presidents. But the very public nature of the contest now plays in part to Stockdale’s strength, allowing him to play on the party’s instinctive fear of publicity.

On the other hand, delegates may feel that the damage has already been done, and blame Stockdale for the unrestrained nature of his own and Minchin’s comments that have — of course — quickly leaked to the media.

If both candidates are tarred with the “media tart” brush, and since no one is even pretending that there are significant policy differences between them, then tomorrow’s meeting will feel free to vote its personal preference, and that looks like being Reith. So salivate away.

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12