Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger. (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

There is no more high-profile political office-bearer in Australian than Michael Kroger. He has never stood for elected office, despite invitations, preferring to to pursue his merchant banking interests. But he’s a familiar name even to the politically disengaged and even outside Victoria, where he has served two stints as state president and been a key factional player for decades. Being a regular talking head on the ABC’s election coverage over the years and, latterly, as a political commentator on Sky hasn’t hurt his national profile either.

His most recent stint as Victorian president began in early 2015 and he says he will step down next March. Old foe Jeff Kennett was calling for him to quit immediately on Saturday night. And Jeff, for all his faults, might have a point. Two key Kroger decisions as president look to have played a significant role in the disaster that befell the Victorian Liberals on Saturday. 

The first was Kroger’s war with the Cormack Foundation, a Liberal fundraising colossus that has around $70 million in assets headed by the cream of the Melbourne establishment. The foundation’s directors jacked up about continuing to donate to the party after they learnt former state director Damien Mantach — subsequently jailed — had stolen over $1.5 million from the Liberals. The foundation, while demanding an overhaul of the party’s governance arrangements, began splashing money on small right-wing parties as well. Kroger took them to court in mid-2017. After a year, he had only a partial victory and a big legal bill to show for it. The foundation then decided to fund the parliamentary party’s campaign directly, sidelining Kroger and the party administrators.

The other was his decision to align with the religious right faction that stacked its way to party dominance, led by Marcus Bastiaan and James Newbury, ousting moderates or, in the case of senators James Paterson and Jane Hume, forcing them to toe the line on the Right’s obsessions. In one Financial Review story, Kroger was quoted, in words that now ring with delicious irony, as saying about his alliance with the religious Right, “my number one objective is to save the Liberal Party from hapless old-fashioned campaigning by C-grade opportunists.” Newbury will now enter parliament despite a 7% swing in the formerly safe seat of Brighton. Bastiaan has since stepped aside for family reasons.

The push to the right in a state that might not be “Australia’s most progressive”, as Daniel Andrews claims, but which is significantly more progressive than, for example, Queensland or NSW, was never going to help Matthew Guy convince Victorians the Liberals understood their concerns. 

Kroger himself didn’t help those perceptions when, in the wake of the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull and allegations of bullying of MPs, he airily dismissed claims by federal MP Julia Banks about the behaviour of some Peter Dutton lieutenants. “This is politics. People speak strongly. People raise their voices, well so they should if great matters of state are at play.”

The high-profile, eminently quotable merchant banker/powerbroker with the old-fashioned ideas about how politics should be done and the command-and-control mentality toward running his party has been left high and dry by a disastrous result. “Swanning around the suburbs that you’ve never been to in your Burberry trench coat, lecturing people about the cost of living — people pick fakes and they pick nasty fakes from a long way off. I hope that he’s the Liberal Party president for life,” said the victorious Daniel Andrews yesterday. Someone with a lower profile and better judgment might be more appropriate for Victorian Liberals charged with rebuilding from the ruins left on Saturday.

Peter Fray

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