One must admire a skilled knife job
Illustration: Pat Campbell
The intended assassination of Gary Humphries has been a planned and premeditated political operation that invites some professional admiration. Whatever one thinks of the personalities involved, this one has seen ruthlessness, skill and arch bastardry in operation.
Zed Seselja and those around him lulled a cautious and suspicious Humphries into thinking Seselja was not going to run, until it was too late for Humphries to organise the defence he could probably have managed, had his opponent been open, honest and straightforward. Whether Humphries was lied to is a matter for theologians, but the intention of those involved, including Seselja, was to deceive him.
This is not merely a matter of a close conspiracy, because those organising it had been moving pieces around for months. Some players have especially loyal followings, but it is a skilled operator who can make myrmidons vote like sheep without letting them in on the strategy.
But Humphries can scarcely complain that he made the mistake of thinking Seselja a gentleman. He himself learnt his political skills in vicious student politics and deception operations. He should have been more wily.
As it happens, he has let his guard slip before, 18 years ago, when he crossed Trevor Kaine. That it could happen again may not only make the Seselja coup a hit job of especial sophistication, but also suggest he got comfortable and complacent.
The relationship between power and numbers is how he got into politics, and made the transition from student politics into the ACT Legislative Assembly, not least with the help of Young Liberals (now being organised against him). But then he seems to have made what Paul Keating once described as the classical mistake of the amateur: of thinking - after kicking, knifing, stabbing, backbiting and betraying his way into power - that he held his place in politics by merit, recognised by everyone else.
Humphries' style, philosophy and ambition collided with that of Trevor Kaine, a former Liberal leader not willing to be eased out of ACT political life in the way that Kate Carnell and Gary Humphries wanted. Kaine outmanoeuvred Humphries by organising the numbers against him in both the Liberal Party branches and in the Liberal Party caucus. It was not merely a better organisation but utter ambush: Humphries was caught by surprise, and was, initially, completely humiliated.
It is to his credit that he picked himself up from the dirt, got back into organising his own numbers again and was, in due course, able to turn the tables, rudely, on Kaine.
Generally, those with the bruises of such encounters do not get caught napping again. Perhaps the very fact that he was reflects on his political abilities, or on his willingness to believe words that went against the evidence. There were plenty of clues about the likelihood of Seselja's seeking his spot.
The preselection timetable is set by the ACT party's administrative committee; both Humphries and Seselja are members. Humphries had initially wanted a preselection about six months ago, but was persuaded - as it seems by people with Seselja's interests at heart - that it should wait. He was, it seems, given a number of assurances that Seselja had no plan to stand, but, in the ordinary course of things would have had no reason to believe such ''indications'' from a potential opponent, least of all from someone such as Seselja who is from the other wing of the Liberal Party and owes Humphries no favours.
The supporters of Seselja did not organise a classic ''stack'' - the sudden admission of a host of new party members, achieved before the other could counter-stack - but supporters of Humphries failed to detect the marshalling of members, being prompted to maintain their right to vote (by having attended a party meeting between July and January). The oblivious Liberals, seeing no challenge in the offing, were careless about making sure that their likely supporters were current.
Opinions differ on how much a politician's general reputation is affected by evidence of ruthlessless and a certain skulduggery and moral chicanery at preselections. Many a member of Parliament, on both sides of the House, is there by unattractive processes, such as branch stacking, political ambush, or the operation of dirty factional deals. Vicious contests between factions in both the Labor and Liberal parties, particularly in NSW, have frequently excited disgust, but hardly ever seemed to cost the victor much at election. In some of the more vicious brawls - as when, for example, Malcolm Turnbull openly stacked branches to win Liberal preselection for Wentworth - the public and the electorate have been witnesses but not, seemingly, very judgmental ones.
All the more so if the trickery is within the rules - organisational and moral. I was somewhat surprised to discover that the ACT Liberals regarded their constitution and rule book as a matter for members only - given that other Liberal branches (and Labor branches generally) have theirs reasonably accessible, but if Humphries had clear reason to cry foul, one might expect that he would have done so.
This does not mean he was not screwed. But he is doubly screwed because, in the Liberal Party as much as in Labor, appeals committees and others able to undo political tricks do not operate judicially, but as organs of factional politics. When the right is in charge, they rubber stamp their actions; the moral claim of the vanquished to complain is almost invariably undermined by their history when they have the numbers.
At least those inclined to tut might note the preselection will be done by grassroots party members rather than by shady factional deals operating without respect to local circumstances, by imposition by head office (a favoured means of Sussex Street government) or by the use of play memberships - the stacks organised by Eddie Obeid, for example, against the stacks organised by the Ferguson left in western Sydney. Nor is the Senator being chosen by a ''captain's pick'' (as with Nova Peris), a ''vice-captain's pick'' (as with the imposition of Laurie Ferguson on Werriwa) or even frozen out of a seat by prime ministerial veto, as happened to Michael Cooney at the hands of Kevin Rudd.
Both ACT Labor and Liberals have fairly open membership-based elections, the broad model of which should be copied elsewhere, not least in NSW. And members of either party, conscious of their power, have in the past shown an independence from hints from those who think they own the party. Thus ACT Labor members rejected the choices of the party officials and the big factions at the last preselections for federal seats, and Liberal brawling underscores a healthy level of internal debate.
What both parties need are formal branch and membership-based processes, along lines that have been sketched out by Labor Senator John Faulkner. But his model involves the idea of non-factional quasi-judicial appeal processes (with a right of appeal to the ordinary courts) as a substitute for the resolution of process-conflict by factionally run committees. He would set timetables for elections, unable to be rorted, or sprung, for particular advantage.
It might seem odd for the formal legal process to regulate political parties to ensure that they fairly represent their members. But we do regulate the governance of trade unions, employer bodies and other private and public corporations, associations and trusts. And we do give political parties millions with not very onerous reporting conditions. Should Labor or the Liberals be less open to public account than the Health Services Union or the Australian Conservation Foundation?
Jack Waterford is Editor-at-Large.