Federal Politics


Sour taste from Senate ambush

Zed Seselja's ACT Liberal Party Senate preselection victory leaves an odd taste in the mouth of many party members.

Zed Seselja has won the ACT Liberal Party's preselection for the ACT Senate, after a members' ballot that saw the incumbent, Gary Humphries, defeated 114 votes to 84. Although supporters of Humphries have sought a general Liberal Party meeting where it is expected there will be efforts to abort the decision, and to conduct another preselection, Seselja is entitled, in the meantime, to be regarded as the anointed candidate, chosen by the method prescribed in the Liberal Party rulebook. It seems unlikely that the result can be overturned for breach of the rules, if only because of the concentrated legalism used by the party organisation to restrict and contain the ballot. But commonsense, political realism and the poor imagery to voters presented by a contrived outcome might suggest that the outcome should pass muster for substance as well as form.

Seselja's victory leaves an odd taste in the mouth of many party members, and may well do damage to the image for character, straightforwardness and fitness for purpose that Seselja must put forward. Seselja did not win by breaking the rules, but he has won by ambush, by misleading voters, party members and his rival about his intentions, and by party manipulation and management of timetables in such a way that it became impossible for Humphries, or party members who wanted to participate, any chance to organise their franchise. That two-thirds of a normally fairly active membership were disenfranchised by the timetable - and that the party organisation, which was openly in Seselja's camp, was closely involved in arranging it so as to spring Seselja's trap, underlines what the public will perceive as something of an affront to the idea of grass roots control of the Canberra Liberals. Indeed, they will recognise that Seselja's success comes in major part from somewhat clandestine activity by a committed and disciplined group of factional warriors - particularly in the Young Liberals - and the susceptibility of an essentially civilian grass roots organisation to professional hits. Many of the operatives who achieved this are on the public payroll - as party staffers. It is by no means clear that the only purpose of this exercise has been to knock off Humphries, a person of liberal and moderate views. It may be, indeed, that the real purpose of the exercise is the capture and control of the local party so that the party, and its elected representatives, promote a moral and religious-based conservatism, particularly on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia. (It is by no means as clear that the campaign is about economic philosophy, which is what has motivated some Liberals, such as John Howard). On issues such as these, there has always been a range of views among Liberals, in Canberra as much as anywhere else, but traditionally the local party has projected itself, through leaders such as Kate Carnell and Gary Humphries, as on the liberal side. Some party members fear that the takeover of the branch involves attempts to freeze out the liberal wing of the party. Elected Liberal representatives are, of course, entitled to promote whatever views they like, but on matters such as this, local Liberals have tended, until recently, not to bind by caucus but to allow a personal conscience vote. The risk entrists (or single-issue people) face is that they implicitly invite voters to judge them on their issue alone, rather than the broader set of philosophies for which their party generally stands. That makes an election a referendum on the better candidate, not on which party has the better general economic philosophy, policies and programs. It is by no means clear that this would be to the advantage of a morally conservative candidate in a classically tolerant and liberal electorate, especially when the second ACT Senate seat is typically closely contested.

Many observers would think that the air could be cleared by a fresh election, if one so organised that neither side had an opportunity to stack it, or to artificially increase the number of eligible electors. It could be held, for example, among members who had attended a meeting within the previous year - as opposed to the artificially constructed past six months. Such a solution would vest the winner, whoever that is, with a greater air of legitimacy, of being the fairly and openly chosen representative of the party, and of representing the ideas and ideals that a majority of the members wants put forward. The successful candidate of the moment labours under the handicap of being thought to have won by ambush and a trick, as well as by a measure of deception of the wider electorate (as to his intention to stay in Assembly politics) and deception of party colleagues as to his intention to challenge Humphries. These are handicaps a successful Liberal campaign does not need.