National

Tim Wilson wins battle for federal seat of Goldstein

In the murky world of federal politics, it doesn't get much murkier than preselection. So it was in the fight for Goldstein, the safe Liberal seat in Melbourne held by outgoing trade minister Andrew Robb.

Former human rights commissioner Tim Wilson gambled his $400,000 a year job to punt on a career in Canberra, and on Saturday won pre-selection in Goldstein

Tim Wilson had to overcome a dirty tricks campaign to win preselection in Goldstein.
Tim Wilson had to overcome a dirty tricks campaign to win preselection in Goldstein.  Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

After a close head-to-head fight, Mr Wilson won Andrew Robb's seat and beat popular local candidate Denis Dragovic by just two votes out of the more than 400 cast.

Mr Wilson also beat lawyer Georgina Downer, the daughter of former foreign minister Alexander Downer, on the way.

"I have never been so humbled in my life," Mr Wilson said after winning the candidacy. "To carry the trust, and to represent the values of the people of Goldstein, is very humbling."

Goldstein is one of the jewels in the Victorian crown for the Liberal Party. The seat is in Real Housewives of Melbourne country, centred around the city's well-heeled Bayside suburbs of Brighton and Sandringham.

The seat has been held by the Liberals since it was founded in 1984, and all three of its past members – Ian Macphee, David Kemp and Mr Robb – have been cabinet ministers.

It may be blue-blood Liberal Party heartland, but that didn't stop the battle preselection descending into a street fight. Mr Wilson had to overcome a dirty tricks campaign to win.

An openly gay candidate, Mr Wilson launched the controversial Safe Schools Coalition during his time as human rights commissioner, an anti-bullying campaign des­igned to raise support for and reducing prejudice against LGBTI students.

The program was rolled out in more than 500 schools across the country, but faced staunch criticism from conservative backbenchers, including Cory Bernardi and George Christensen. The program was, in the words of Mr Christensen, "gutted" on Friday, just hours before the Goldstein preselection vote took place.

In the days leading up to the vote, a scandal sheet about Mr Wilson was posted to party members in the seat, described by senior Liberals described as "grubby and homophobic".

Mr Wilson was described as "neither conservative or liberal", a "proud supporter of the Safe Schools Coalition" and was criticised for his "unrelenting campaign for gay rights issues".

But the scandal sheet merely coalesced support behind Mr Wilson. Education minister Simon Birmingham, his predecessor in the job, Christopher Pyne, and assistant education minister Scott Ryan all jumped to his defence. They all stated that Mr Wilson had voiced concerns about some of the more controversial aspects of Safe Schools program.

Amid the furore, Liberal Party state president Michael Kroger downplayed the campaign against Mr Wilson in a television interview.

"These sheets go around Liberal preselections and Labor preselections," Mr Kroger told Sky News. "They do no real harm because our members, like the Labor members, are used to this stuff and they take very little notice of it."

Indeed, such is Mr Wilson's standing within Liberal Party circles that Mr Bernardi, one of the leaders of the campaign against Safe Schools, also defended him.

"In the end, what this incident proves is that substance and policy and steering the future direction the country is more important to Liberal Party values, not smears," Mr Wilson said after his victory.

The heavyweights of the Liberal Party lined up between the two high-profile names.

Mr Wilson's pamphlets included endorsements from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former PM Tony Abbott, while Victorian cabinet minister Scott Ryan reportedly worked the phones on his behalf.. Ms Downer, a successful lawyer, had the lobbying of her father, Alexander Downer, as she attempted to become the fourth Downer to enter federal parliament. She also had the endorsement of former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, outgoing member Andrew Robb and senior Victorians ministers Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg.

Mr Dragovic pitched himself as a 'David' up against the 'Goliaths' of the Liberal Party establishment, and worked hard to win the support of the grassroots membership within Goldstein. "In the end, the backlash from the scandal sheet probably cost him preselection," said one senior Liberal.

It is believed Victorian Liberal Party President Michael Kroger encouraged Mr Wilson to run for Goldstein, instead of contest a spot on the state's senate ticket.

Mr Kroger praised Mr Wilson's victory on Saturday evening. "He is an outstanding and highly qualified and decorated advocate of Liberal values," he said. "This is a stunning result for the party. Tim is someone, like James Paterson, who will hit the ground running and can make an immediate impact in Canberra."