Uneasy alliance: Premier Denis Napthine and Nationals leader Peter Ryan.
Victorian Deputy Premier Peter Ryan was in Ballarat to make a series of local announcements on Wednesday but something else was on his mind. In the newspapers that morning, the Nationals leader had read reports confirming the Liberals would run against his party in the state seat of Euroa, a newly formed electorate in Victoria’s north-east.
Ryan was furious. For months, the Nationals had claimed Euroa as their patch to contest at this year’s state election, based on the way it was carved up during a recent redistribution of electoral boundaries. That its Coalition partner decided to mount a three-cornered battle – and didn’t bother to tell Ryan personally – says a lot about the growing tensions within the Napthine government’s ranks.
“We have not asked the Liberal Party to stand; indeed we have asked the Liberal party not to stand,” he said last week. “The Liberal Party has apparently chosen to stand, although they have not spoken to me formally about it as I stand here now. We think it is a most unfortunate decision.”
With five months until the poll, one can’t help but question whether the Coalition has become so accustomed to political headaches it decided to create another one, just for the sake of continuity.
No sooner had the government cleared the air over Geoff Shaw, another problem has erupted, providing Labor with fresh ammunition in the regional towns and cities where this year’s election could be won or lost. As one bewildered Liberal told The Sunday Age: “Given all the bullshit we’ve just been through, why are we doing this?”
Nationals claim the Liberals are in breach of the Coalition agreement established in 2008, which discourages three-cornered contests in seats being vacated by retiring MPs.
Liberal hardheads disagree, saying the party has the right to run in the new electorate and is doing so with Napthine’s backing to minimise the chance of an independent winning the seat. Euroa, after all, is in the same region as the federal seat of Indi, where memories of Cathy McGowan’s historic victory over Sophie Mirabella still burn deep.
Both sides will now head to November’s poll at war in the bush, using resources that could otherwise be spent elsewhere battling the common enemy: Labor. The question is, will it be worth the angst?
At the federal election last year, tensions between the Coalition partners erupted when the Liberals decided to contest the seat of Mallee, Nationals’ heartland for 64 years. The campaign sparked internal unrest, yet in the end – and hundreds of thousands of dollars later – the Nats reclaimed its stronghold. As Ryan put it last week: “Here we go again.”
Part of the latest turf war comes down to sheer numbers. Put simply, Euroa is notionally held by the Nationals with a 13.6 per cent margin, taking in some of the abolished seat of Benalla (soon to be vacated by retiring Nats MP Bill Sykes) as well as parts of Seymour, Rodney and Shepparton.
Under a complex formula outlined in the Coalition agreement, one party can claim a redistributed seat if it has at least 50 per cent of the votes in the newly defined electorate boundary, using figures from the previous election. The Nationals claim they have the majority; the Liberals disagree.
The one thing that is clear is the fear and loathing beneath the surface. Some furious Nats are already talking about an aggressive push against the Liberals to not only win Euroa but the marginal Labor-held seat of Ripon in the state’s north-west. Others fear the Liberals are trying to dilute the Nationals' presence in the party room, where they have 10 of the Coalition’s 44 lower house seats.
Meanwhile, some on the Liberal side wonder if their Coalition partner will now undermine them in Liberal-held country seats such as Benambra, just as former National MP Ken Jasper did when he actively supported McGowan’s federal campaign in Indi.
Others have even hit out at Ryan, saying there were several discussions between the two parties about a three-cornered contest in Euroa, including a meeting between his deputy, Peter Walsh, and Liberal party president Tony Snell. The suggestion is that Napthine was keen to run in Euroa as “insurance” against an Indi-style campaign but Ryan was reluctant to engage in talks.
For Ryan, too, this is an internal stoush steeped in history. As Nationals leader, it was Ryan who made the decision to walk away from the Coalition after the Kennett government was defeated in 1999 amid a backlash in the bush. It was Ryan who also decided, eight years later, to re-enter the political marriage with Kennett’s protege, Ted Baillieu, giving both parties a better chance to reclaim government in 2010. And it was Ryan and Baillieu who established the Coalition agreement to maintain stability between the two conservative sides.
Fast forward to the present day and that agreement is on shaky ground, with both sides at odds over a rural seat in a volatile region where grassroots politics was completely redefined at last year’s federal election.
On one hand, the three-cornered contest gives voters more choice. On the other, the last thing the government needs is to appear as though it is at war with itself, particularly in country Victoria where issues such as TAFE cuts, job losses and ambulance response times continue to bite.
Farrah Tomazin is state politics editor.