That the preselection contest for the No. 1 spot on the Canberra Liberals' Senate ticket should have brought on an internal party stoush was entirely predictable. Few political prizes are as coveted as a No. 1 Senate spot - provided you represent one of the major parties, election is virtually guaranteed. Moreover, senators are largely spared the tedium of having to deal with constituent matters, as lower house MPs are obliged to do. Though it is sometimes supposed that the Liberals are susceptible to missing out on the second of the two ACT Senate seats, history indicates the party always shares the spoils with the Labor Party.
Which is why the preselection contest between former ACT opposition leader Zed Seselja and sitting senator Gary Humphries is being so keenly fought. Only days after Mr Seselja declared his intention to challenge, some party members have alleged unfair procedural advantage for the Seselja bid. They claim the preselection process has been rushed in an attempt to limit the number of members eligible to vote on February 23.
Former Canberra Liberals president Gary Kent has written to division president Tio Faulkner (who also sits on the management committee) outlining his concerns that some members may have been "in the dark'' about the vote. According to Mr Kent , fewer than 240 members (out of a total party membership of about 640) may be able to vote in the contest between Mr Seselja and Senator Humphries.
What is clear is that the rolls for the poll are closed, and those members who failed to attend a properly constituted internal meeting in the past six months were deemed to be ineligible, as party rules dictate. Mr Kent, however, claims there were deliberate attempts to limit the opportunities to attend "qualifying meetings''.
A management committee meeting held on Wednesday evening to consider Mr Kent's claims, found there was no case to answer and declared the preselection timetable should not be altered. That result has apparently led some members to consider moves to petition for a full divisional council meeting. This could potentially overturn the management committee meeting, but such a meeting could not be held before the preselection ballot.
Mr Seselja denies any attempts have been made to disenfranchise members, arguing that "the processes are very open and transparent''. Similarly, Mr Faulkner, a former senior staffer for Mr Seselja, said on Thursday that the process ''fully complies with the [party's] constitution, and is the same process used in the 2010, 2007, 2004, 2002, and earlier, preselections''.
Though initially unwilling to comment on Mr Kent's claims, Senator Humphries has since expressed concern at the management committee's decision, claiming that because Mr Seselja did not publicly disclose his candidacy until the day that nominations closed, some party members were unaware a preselection battle was looming and thus failed to ensure they were qualified to vote.
Senator Humphries would seem to have a point about his opponent springing a surprise. On November 13, Mr Seselja denied he had any plans to enter federal politics, and at the unveiling of his shadow cabinet two weeks later he said he was looking "forward to continuing the great work we do on behalf of all the people of Canberra''. With those emphatic declarations, and the approach of Christmas, it is conceivable that few Liberal Party members would have considered it necessary to update their qualification to vote in a preselection battle.
Senator Humphries , who was aware of rumours in early November that he might be challenged by a high-profile Liberal (hence Mr Seselja's denial), was perhaps naive in not taking steps to shore up his own support base. Perhaps he was relying on the fact that sitting members are rarely challenged at preselection time - particularly if (like him) they are regarded as still having something to contribute.
While Humphries supporters might argue that Mr Seselja and his backers have played a sharpish game, Mr Faulkner was adamant on Thursday that everything had been done by the rules and that the management committee would not ''bend the rules by extending the constitutionally stipulated six-month period to attend a branch meeting''.
But perhaps, for the sake of party unity, Mr Faulkner and the management committee need to reconsider their position and allow all financial party members to vote in the preselection. This would satisfy the requirements for transparency and openness that Mr Seselja places such importance in, and curtail an unseemly scrap that threatens to cast a cloud over the result.