At 5.30pm today, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will turn up at a Woolworths-controlled pokies venue associated with the Carlton Football Club in an attempt persuade local Liberal Party members in the safe seat of Menzies to save Canberra’s longest-serving MP Kevin Andrews from preselection defeat.
The Manningham Hotel & Club in Bulleen — which, like Andrews, has an uncertain future as the $16 billion North East Link project gets under way — is a favourite pokies venue of Andrews, although its owner (Woolworths and its billionaire partner Bruce Mathieson) hasn’t offered a discount for tonight’s meet-and-greet.
It’s not a fundraiser as the 90-minute booze-up is free — given the main aim is to have Menzies’ preselectors attend and persuade them to give the capital-C conservative another three-year term.
Andrews is facing a COVID-delayed preselection challenge on January 31 from Keith Wolahan, a Cambridge-educated barrister and former army captain who is touted as a future defence minister, just like Andrews was back in the day.
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Party insiders say the vote of more than 300 local members and central party delegates is likely to be close, with Andrews still popular with many conservative Liberals but facing a challenge from an all round “nice white guy” with a stellar CV but no public profile to speak of.
The “It’s Time” factor is Andrews’ biggest problem.
Preselection challenges against sitting MPs are rare in the Liberal Party, particularly in Victoria. Frydenberg, who holds the neighbouring seat of Kooyong with a shrinking margin of 5.7% from Greens rival Julian Burnside, knows this only too well. He failed 62 votes to 22 in his attempt to defeat moderate journeyman Petro Georgiou way back in 2006.
Georgiou retired at the 2010 election and Frydenberg, having worked the local Liberals hard in his first attempt, comfortably defeated John Pesutto in the 2009 preselection contest and is now considered next in line for Liberal Party leadership once Scott Morrison departs.
In terms of successful federal preselection challenges against sitting Victorian Liberal MPs, you have to go way back to 1989 when “wet” Ian McPhee was defeated by his “dry” rival, David Kemp, during the endless Howard v Peacock wars.
Andrews turned 65 in November and was Tony Abbott’s best mate in federal parliament. With Eric Abetz the three formed the “Triple A Conservatives” who led the charge to tear down Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, even though polling showed more than 70% of Menzies voters preferred Turnbull over Abbott.
Andrews hasn’t served as a minister since he was dropped after Turnbull rolled Abbott for the leadership in 2016. With no future as a minister, it remains puzzling why Andrews is running again — particularly when he would receive a pay rise on retiring courtesy of an elevated indexed pension from all those years serving in the Howard and Abbott ministries.
Andrews has held Menzies continuously since his surprise preselection victory over then-JBWere chief economist David Jarman in 1991. That contest involved 24 candidates and was held at the Yarra Valley Country Club, which is now also a pokies venue associated with Mathieson and the Carlton Football Club.
(It is currently the subject of a controversial attempted rezone for a major $200 million-plus residential development adjacent to the North East Link and close to the banks of the Yarra River, but that is a story for another day.)
Andrews brings plenty of baggage to the contest, not least of which is the $40,000-plus in local donations his campaign team has received over the year from pokies industry peak bodies such as Clubs NSW and the Australian Hotels Association.
This partly explains how he is able to offer free food and drinks to the local Liberal Party members and their partners who turn up to hear Frydenberg endorse his record at the Manningham Club tonight.
Despite his strong Christian faith, Andrews had no problems with his conscience when it came to being Abbott’s shadow minister who campaigned against the 2010-11 pokies reform package negotiated by Julia Gillard, Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon.
This was designed to tackle Australia’s notorious status of being the nation with the highest per capital gambling losses in the world, something which doesn’t seem to trouble Andrews.
This famous victory for the pokies industry has largely scared off politicians from meaningful pokies industry reform ever since and Australians’ pokies losses have surged more than 50% to more than $14 billion a year in the subsequent decade.
The other baggage that Andrews brings to the table is his connection with fellow conservative Michael Sukkar in neighbouring Deakin and their joint association with branch-stacking allegations broadcast on 60 Minutes last year.
Andrews vehemently rejected allegations of inappropriate behaviour at the time but has never publicly answered detailed questions about the claims.
The 300-plus local preselectors who cram into The Centre — a big venue suitable for social distancing in the neighbouring Labor-held seat of Jaga Jaga — will no doubt ask a few questions about this baggage during the various roundtables that occur as they decide Andrews’ future on Sunday week.
Long-serving conservatives don’t usually go quietly when under preselection or electorate pressure. The Liberals would have retained Abbott’s seat of Warringah in 2019 if only he’d retired. Craig Kelly threatened to blow up the Morrison government when he faced a preselection challenge from moderate Kent Johns ahead of the last election, and Bronwyn Bishop bitterly contested her seat of Mackellar when defeated by moderate Julian Leeser.
Conservative and climate denialist Dennis Jensen even went so far as to run as an independent against Morrison’s great mate Ben Morton after he lost his preselection in the WA seat of Tangney in 2016.
Frydenberg doesn’t get a vote in the Andrews’ preselection, but his decision to try to save him shows he is keen to retain support from the right-wing faction in his quest to become Australia’s next Liberal prime minister.
But will it cost him support from more moderate city-based MPs — including Wolohan if he becomes the member for Menzies?