Cabinet Minister Kelly O'Dwyer is set to lose her chief of staff just two months after appointing him with Liberal party machine man Julian Sheezel emerging as a surprise contestant in the race for the Victorian Senate number one spot.
The revelation came amid concerns from several stakeholders who told Fairfax Media Ms O'Dwyer's office appeared dysfunctional. But this was rejected by sources within Ms O'Dwyer's office who said she was dealing with a couple of hundred stakeholders more than most portfolios and simply taking a different approach to her predecessor.
Mr Sheezel has taken an unpaid leave of absence, abandoning the Assistant Treasurer, also a new mother and newly promoted cabinet minister, five months from her first budget and heading into an election year.
Mr Sheezel is a former Deputy Federal Director of the Liberal party and has been in machine politics in various roles since 2003. Prior to that he was a senior tax manager at KPMG and a tax consultant at Ernst & Young.
Ms O'Dwyer praised his "campaigning and policy skills" in a statement she issued announcing his appointment as her chief of staff on October 2.
A Treasury official is expected to replace Mr Sheezel in the Assistant Treasurer's office while he campaigns for the prized number one spot on the Victorian Liberal Senate ticket, caused by the retirement of Michael Ronaldson.
Several stakeholders said that in their experience the Assistant Treasurer's office had so far been poor at communication and is disorganised. But sources said Ms O'Dwyer simply took a different approach to her predecessor Bruce Billson who only held one portfolio and met regularly with small business stakeholders. Ms O'Dwyer in contrast holds two portfolios and prefers to meet organisations as necessary rather than for the sake of it.
Several senior Victorian Liberals predicted Mr Sheezel's decision to leave his job as chief of staff so soon after accepting the appointment would reflect badly and likened it to the potential candidacy of Freedom Commissioner Tim Wilson, who is less than halfway through his five-year term at the Human Rights Commission (HRC).
Mr Wilson, formerly of the free market think-tank Institute of Public Affairs, had called for the HRC to be abolished, but accepted a six-figure salary when he was appointed to sit on the commission after the Coalition was elected.
Mr Wilson has not publicly said whether he will run for the Senate spot but sources said he had been making calls to sound whether he had enough support to win.
Another IPA candidate, James Paterson, is also contesting the number one spot. Mr Paterson was hoping to have enjoyed the support of senators Scott Ryan and Mitch Fifield but that support is now likely to swing behind Mr Sheezel.
A senior Liberal believed the final showdown would come down to Mr Sheezel and Jane Hume, currently the number three candidate on the Victorian Senate ticket.
"We've never had a Victorian Senate team without a woman on it," the Liberal said. Ms Hume has not yet declared if she will contest the number one spot but it is expected that she will. She would be the only female candidate out of those declared so far. A recent Liberal Party report found the party needed more female representation and called for 50-50 representation by 2025.