Albatross versus open preselection
Gary Humphries is all but doomed in his efforts to prevent Zed Seselja from usurping his No. 1 spot on the Canberra Liberals' Senate ticket at a preselection meeting later this month, so the informed thinking goes. But Tony Abbott's comments in defence of Senator Humphries on Wednesday have put a new complexion on the matter.
The Opposition Leader went much further than party leaders usually go in such circumstances, even allowing for the fact that he was addressing what was, in effect, a rally called for Senator Humphries by faithful supporters. Praising the senator's political skills, Mr Abbott told the meeting that "I want to see those gifts continue to be available to us in the Senate and more widely, so I really want to support Gary's continuation in the Senate as strongly as I possibly can''.
He went on to argue that while the Liberals believed that MPs should face challenges for their positions, preselections should be "fair and clean … there should be no dirty tricks, there should be no ambushes; we leave [those] to the Labor Party''.
Having already broadcast his support of Senator Humphries shortly after Mr Seselja announced his Senate bid - although in more measured terms - Mr Abbott could have politely declined the invitation. After all, political leaders generally exercise a hands-off approach to the minutiae of preselection. Having decided to attend, he endorsed the senator in glowing terms, voiced concerns about the fairness of the contest, and pleaded for preselectors not to allow themselves to be "dragooned into voting for one or other candidate simply because some boss says you've got to go this way''.
Loyalty towards a colleague and frontbencher goes only part way to explaining why Mr Abbott might have championed Senator Humphries so emphatically. Other than a background in student politics, neither would appear to have much in common.
Mr Abbott is, by any measure, the most effective and successful Liberal leader since John Howard. Not only is he heavily favoured to become prime minister in September, he has little to fear from adverse publicity stemming from a bruising preselection encounter of limited interest to the wider electorate. All this makes the intervention even more extraordinary.
It has occasionally been said of Senator Humphries that he lacks charisma and a strong media presence. But careful political observers would acknowledge he has been an effective and hard-working senator and a forthright spokesman for and on behalf of the ACT. With a place all but booked in a future Abbott ministry, it could also be argued that Senator Humphries still has plenty to offer the electorate.
Senator Humphries's political career would in all likelihood be over if he lost his No. 1 spot to Mr Seselja. That probability has left some Liberal Party members either indignant or despairing about what they see as unfairness. Heather Henderson, the daughter of Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies, no doubt spoke for many when she expressed distress at the ructions and the possibility that it could result in the party losing a senator.
Whatever the accusations of a "set-up'', it is important to recognise that Mr Seselja has broken no party rules, nor bent them to suit his purposes. Indeed, he and his lieutenants have abided by them to the letter. However, Mr Seselja is on much weaker ground concerning allegations that he has ignored the spirit of the party rules. This shortcoming has the potential to become an albatross around his neck and indeed around the collective necks of all Liberal Party members.
As most people would grant, perceptions are everything in politics. Were he to succeed Senator Humphries, Mr Seselja could have difficulty in shaking off the discontent that has attached to him during this episode. The way to short-circuit such damaging feelings, would, of course, be to open up the preselection ballot to all current and financial members. That might necessitate a delay, but given the date of the election - September 14 - there seems no particular reason to rush matters. Moreover, an open preselection could well advance Mr Seselja as much as it might help Senator Humphries.
If the Canberra Liberal Party is to remove all negative suggestions from this process, as Mr Abbott seems to be suggesting it should, then this preselection should not only be above board but be seen to be above board.