Michael Kroger’s extraordinary spray against his groomsman this morning on two Melbourne radio stations looked less like the last death-throes of a factional non-entity and more like a subtle preselection power play from the old master of Monash University influence peddling.
Kroger basically accused Peter Costello of being the Mick Malthouse of federal politics, unable to get over his post-2007 dummy spit at and continually trying to shore up his own dwindling support base of ex-staffers while pursuing a boring day job.
Professing complete and utter ignorance at what passes for Tory machinations, he told an excited Jon Faine it wasn’t necessarily the recent ding-dong battle between Helen Kroger and Scott Ryan for the second Senate spot that rankled, rather Mitch Fifield’s budget day suicide mission to strip Kroger’s ex-wife of her Whip gig.
But a stunning sense of divide and rule, the hallmark of Kroger’s chess board manoeuvrings over 35 years were what mattered.
The most telling moment came when Kroger rattled off a list of prominent Liberals — Alexander Downer, Tony Abbott, Alan Stockdale, Malcolm Turnbull, Robert Doyle, Michael Ronaldson, John Hewson, Andrew Peacock, Jeff Kennett, Jason Aldworth and Helen Kroger and the Kemp brothers and himself — that Costello should “stop bagging”.
The decapitation was all the more striking given his support for current MPs such as Josh Frydenberg, Alan Tudge and Dan Tehan that he admitted only saying “five words to” in his life. Recall that these were the names Costello was apparently targeting after he told Kroger (according to Kroger) at a gathering of “100 people” at a private Melbourne club that he wanted to resume his rightful place on the green leather.
The master manipulator will now be expected to be thanked to mop up their support and confidence to extend Club Fed power base and consign Costello’s former staffers Tony Smith and Kelly O’Dwyer — who alongside Ryan and Fifield have been buoyed by their participation in shadowy forums of Modest Members and their journalistic expression in The Financial Review — to irrelevance.
Liberal sources said this morning that broad Kroger forces, even without the Taliban splitters, control at least 30% of the Victorian party.
By admitting that most of his power came from Costello, he has effectively hitched his wagon to everyone who hated him from the Kennett-Baillieu school of influence ahead of the 2013 preselection round.
Another important passage came later on Neil Mitchell’s program. The one-time Victorian Liberal Party president was livid about Costello’s apparent backgrounding of senior Age political journalist Katharine Murphy in this piece on Monday morning, which ran with a massive above-the-fold front-page pointer that included the word “Kroger”.
“When The Age said my era was over … ‘oh hello Katharine, you know down there at The Age that was 20 years ago, the Fairfax press, I could have told them that in 1992.
“This Katharine Murphy, I’ve got news for you, I haven’t been president of the party for 20 years … hello Katharine”, he said, explaining “I haven’t been president for two decades, I don’t exercise much power or authority, I don’t seek to.”
There seemed to be a bit of confusion over the factional powerbroker narrative. Kroger said he has relinquished formal power after leaving the Liberal Party presidency 20 years ago, while simultaneously running a stacking racket to preselect Costello acolytes to roll John Howard as prime minister:
“Why did I need a faction? The reason our grouping existed was to get good people into parliament that might support Peter for the prime ministership,” he told Faine.
Kroger, 54, is also not completely without a future on the federal frontbenches with Labor-held seats of Melbourne Ports and Deakin well in play and primed for a late-career putsch should he be able to keep supporters in Canberra onside.
Local preselections are also apparently of concern — Kroger failed to rule out interventions in Corangamite where Rod Knockles, with the backing of O’Dwyer and Ryan, is taking on former ABC reporter Sarah Henderson.
Despite the Kemp reforms, Liberal preselections remain easily manipulable. Kroger claimed to Faine that his ballot for his ex-wife’s position was democratic enough in line with the Kemp reforms, without acknowledging that many grassroots Liberals wouldn’t have actually voted in the 276-139 decision given that under party rules the majority of votes are drawn from elected positions.
And in the back of his mind, Kroger would have the factional future of one of his two sons to Helen, former Wesley alumnus Simon Kroger, who now works at dad’s investment bank JT Campbell and has been repeatedly elected as a Liberal office bearer at state level.
Guffaws ensued when Kroger claimed to be supportive of the Victorian Premier, but suspicion is rife in journalistic circles that he remains more than happy to background journalists under his trademark “Victorian Liberal powerbroker” anonotag, especially when it comes to delivering his views on the competency of the Baillieu government.