Kevin Andrews and Keith Wolahan (Images: AAP, YouTube)

After almost 30 years in parliament, capital-C Catholic conservative Kevin Andrews is finally gone as the member for Menzies, replaced by another white male lawyer in the form of Keith Wolahan.

In the end, it was a thumping preselection victory: 181 votes to 111. This exceeded the wildest expectations of the challenging moderate camp and was almost as comprehensive in percentage terms as the 51-39 defeat of Bronwyn Bishop by Jason Falinski in 2016.

Bishop notched up 29 years in the Senate and Andrews was trying to topple the 33-year run that his hero John Howard had in federal parliament (which made it into the top 10 of all time in terms of length of service).

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Knowing that a Wolahan challenge was coming, Andrews’ decision to run again remains puzzling — particularly given that his pension will be comparable to his backbench salary. Tony Abbott was his best mate in parliament and Andrews could have endorsed Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin for Menzies. However, Credlin apparently wants a safe seat delivered to her on a platter and as a non-local she may well have struggled to beat Wolahan. His military service, many years in the local branches and Cambridge education was particularly appealing to Menzies preselectors.

Andrews was never meant to be in federal parliament. The little-known conservative Catholic solicitor who brought his four children up in Heidelberg without a television fluked his original preselection victory in 1991. He was backed by Catholic and Freemason forces who were rounded up by then state MPs such as David Perrin and Bruce Skeggs. When former deputy Liberal leader Neil Brown retired, the seat was meant to go to then party vice-president David Jarman.

But having pulled off a shock victory, Andrews first drew attention to himself as a social conservative by moving a private member’s bill to kill off the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation in 1997.

This sparked a moderate preselection challenge from Louise Staley in 2000 which Andrews should have lost; he was saved by the strong backing of Howard and Staley’s earlier drink driving charge. It was a very dirty contest, unlike the clean contest we saw this time. Staley is now a Victorian state Liberal MP and was one of the few incumbent MPs to publicly congratulate Wolahan for his victory yesterday.

Andrews was unashamedly associated with the conservative right faction from this point on. He was openly hostile to Malcolm Turnbull, and even mounted a leadership challenge in 2009 (which he lost 48 votes to 35).

As Michael Kroger likes to observe, Andrews gets a bad wrap in the progressive media because of his conservative social views on the likes of marriage, euthanasia and abortion, but he was a diligent local member and a competent performer inside cabinet for many years. He held portfolios including defence, aged care, immigration and industrial relations.

He was less combative then his best mates in the federal parliament — Abbott, Eric Abetz and Michael Sukkar — and managed to surf above various accusations of branch-stacking. The latest allegations came in August last year, and Andrews was cleared of wrongdoing in October.

If there was any branchstacking, it clearly wasn’t very effective. After almost 30 years as the local member, Andrews could only muster about 100 local Liberals (20 of the 289 votes were held by non-locals such as Josh Frydenberg) to vote for him yesterday.

Andrews has actually never lived within the current boundaries of Menzies. He never even bothered to change church, so there was no ability to round up fellow parishioners from his beloved St John’s in Heidelberg (which is in neighbouring Jagajaga).

Considering all this, it’s remarkable he lasted as long as he did. When the Turnbull forces ousted Abbott as prime minister in 2015 and Andrews was dumped to the backbench, he should have gracefully retired. This was the time for a quick Credlin handover, shortly before the 2016 election. Instead, he suffered the biggest primary vote drop of any Victorian Liberal in 2016 and right-wing forces then engineered the cancellation of all preselections for sitting MPs ahead of the 2019 election.

Andrews’ most notable contribution during his last two terms is probably recommending it take two years rather than one to get a divorce. He also helped tear down Turnbull and wanted to install Peter Dutton as prime minister. Andrews never voted for fellow church-goer Scott Morrison, which makes the PM’s strong endorsement of Andrews via Frydenberg quite surprising.

The nation was watching yesterday’s Menzies vote. If hundreds of local Liberals had chosen to re-endorse a pro-life climate sceptic, it would have diminished the reelection prospects of the Morrison government, risked losing Menzies next year and demonstrated the Victorian state division is unfit to return to government any time soon.

Instead, Dan Andrews should now be a little bit worried that the conservative right-wing takeover of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party has been successfully neutralised. This paves the way for the election of more mainstream centrist Liberal MPs, which is what Wolahan represents.

Stephen Mayne ran against Kevin Andrews as an independent candidate for Menzies in the 2016 federal election. He is currently serving on the City of Manningham council in Melbourne’s east.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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