Editorial

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Barring any last-minute hiccups, former ACT opposition leader Zed Seselja will be installed as the Canberra Liberals' No. 1 Senate candidate for the federal election on Saturday, displacing the incumbent, Gary Humphries. That is the likeliest outcome when preselectors meet at the Eastlake Football Club to cast their ballots.

Preselection battles for seats regarded as "dead certs'' - as the Liberals' ACT Senate spot certainly is - can be murky affairs, and it is perhaps a measure of the growing desperation of Senator Humphries and his supporters that complaints about the handling of the process have surfaced regularly in the past 10 days or so.

The gist of these concerns is that Mr Seselja gave no public indication of his intention to challenge Senator Humphries and did not nominate until virtually the last minute on February 4. As a result of their failure to attend a properly constituted party meeting in the six months before nominations closed - in all likelihood because they assumed that no challenge was imminent - many Humphries supporters have complained they have been barred from Saturday's contest. While there is no suggestion that the process has been conducted outside the letter of the party's constitution, it has exposed the brutal nature of politics.

The extent of the disenfranchisement is significant. Of the party membership of about 640, only about one-third - between 201 and 217 members - will be eligible to vote on Saturday. Pleas to stage another qualifying meeting were rebuffed by senior officials, and as a result a group has petitioned for an extraordinary general meeting to be held next month at which efforts could be made to overturn the preselection result.

In his pitch to preselectors on Saturday, Mr Seselja will in all likelihood highlight his drive and ambition, his success in leading the local parliamentary party to within one seat of government at the election last October, and his belief that he can do a better job of representing the Territory by maintaining ''conservative values''. For his part, Senator Humphries will no doubt emphasise his extensive political experience, his record of service in the Senate, his feat in winning a spot on the Coalition's frontbench team, and the strong support shown to him by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

That endorsement, which went well beyond what Mr Abbott might have offered in other circumstances, could be crucial to Senator Humphries' chances of retaining his No. 1 ranking. It certainly seems to confirm that Senator Humphries would be seated "above the salt'' rather than below in any future Coalition government if he survives preselection. That likely proximity to power is central to Senator Humphries' claims that he can serve the Territory's interests better than his opponent - and at a crucial time of likely public sector job losses. It also neatly draws attention to the fact that Mr Seselja will probably be destined for a long spell on the backbench if elected to the Senate. As a future minister or parliamentary secretary, Senator Humphries will, of course, be bound by party solidarity, but his voting record during the Howard years indicates that he is a staunch defender of the ACT.

Where some will consider Mr Seselja trumps Senator Humphries is in respect of generational change and personal appeal, especially with voters in the Tuggeranong Valley who, while they might have voted Labor at the last federal election, flocked to Mr Seselja's side in October. Senator Humphries is a relatively youthful 54, and so would regard such comparisons as odious. He could counter by pointing out Mr Seselja's relative inexperience, along with the fact that the former opposition leader would go from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fry in a very large lake where effectiveness is closely linked to connections and relationships are built up over time.

And as Senator Humphries has already pointed out, he has, as a former chief minister, actually led a government. Mr Seselja has fought strongly, but lost, two elections.

Warnings from some that this unseemly jostle will harm the Liberals' vote in September are probably wide of the mark. Damage to party unity, however, is another matter entirely. Bitterness, ill feeling and recriminations are bound to continue regardless of who wins the preselection ballot, and are unlikely to disappear even after next month's extraordinary meeting. To many Liberal Party members it must already seem like too high a price to pay for ''renewal''.