In the gun: Premier Denis Napthine has to balance the Liberal factions' interests.
Denis Napthine was on his way to the Bendigo Jockey Club for what spin doctors call a "good news" photo opportunity, but the bad news of the day was occupying his mind.
Splashed across the national media that morning was one of his candidates for the state election, Institute of Public Affairs research fellow Aaron Lane, exposed for posting crude and homophobic tweets on social media.
Napthine was furious. Laden with references to "faggots", masturbation and politicians described as "Giant C's", Lane's comments were not only politically damaging, they also came from someone seeking to represent the upper house region of Western Victoria – which happens to take in the Premier's own much-loved electoral turf. As party chiefs in Melbourne discussed cutting him loose, Napthine didn't hesitate to seal his fate.
"There is no place on my team or in the Coalition team for this sort of behaviour and these sort of comments," he told reporters in Bendigo, hours before the Liberal administrative committee was due to meet and make an executive decision. "Mr Lane needs to step aside."
It was a big call, designed to send a strong message to other candidates, not to mention voters more broadly. Yet three days later, the Premier was back in his office with staff, poring over other offensive screen grabs about to hit the press: this time showing the Facebook rants of Bendigo West candidate Jack Lyons, whose posts involved everything from rape jokes and racism, to juvenile stupidity.
By the weekend, it was the Young Liberals' turn: two members of the Melbourne University Liberal Club were caught describing women as "sluts" and Muslims as "degenerates", and 24 hours later, another Liberal student for making offensive comments while he was the vice-president of the Swinburne University Liberal Club.
With 97 days before November's election, the events of recent months are not only a bad look for a government flagging in the opinion polls, they have also given rise to valid questions about the culture of the Victorian Liberal Party, and whether hardline forces are gaining ascendancy within its ranks.
In isolation, the social media gaffes could be dismissed as a salient lesson on the perils of Twitter and Facebook. But in recent months there have been other signs, too: a botched attempt at the Liberal state council to manipulate a vote for control of the party's powerful administrative committee; Liberal backbenchers encouraging Geoff Shaw to agitate for changes to abortion law; the government's decision to attend a controversial pro-life/anti-gay event later this month.
Even a leaked Dictaphone recording of a private conversation in which former premier Ted Baillieu criticised some colleagues is believed to involve "Tea Party style" operatives working in conjunction with Labor to destabilise the Napthine government. As one senior Liberal told The Sunday Age: "I have no doubt there are some people in our party who wouldn't mind seeing the government fall if it meant they could rebuild it with their own prototypes."
So what exactly is going on? Is there a growing infiltration of extreme right-wingers trying to flex more muscle in the Victorian branch? Are they merely irritants, or actual impediments to public policy? Or is this simply part of the ebb and flow of modern politics; the product of ever-shifting factional alignments within the party's ranks?
Every party, after all, has had its share of rogues over the years, and the Liberals are no different. In 2008, two staffers working for the organisation started an anonymous blog devoted to undermining Baillieu when he was state opposition leader, referring to him as "Red Ted" and accusing him of being too far "left" to be leader. An investigation traced the blog back to members of the Liberal campaign unit, based at the party's headquarters in Melbourne. Those who were there at the time admit the event was politically damaging, but it also gave the party the chance to flush out "destructive individuals" and rebuild.
Unsurprisingly, Labor is now crafting a narrative designed to convince progressive-minded swinging voters that a new breed of destructive individuals are creeping back in. Baillieu's shock resignation on Friday will further fuel claims the dynamics are shifting. "It is not an accident that more and more often we are hearing extreme right-wing sentiments - extremely offensive sentiments - from Liberal MPs and candidates," says Labor's shadow attorney-general, Martin Pakula. "They are the logical consequence of what the Liberal Party is fast on the road to becoming."
Also unsurprisingly, Liberal hardheads vehemently disagree. Some argue all sides of politics play to their base by espousing "strident" views and social media has simply provided more avenues for those views to be aired, whether we like them or not. Others admit there might be a few rogue elements - variously labelled as "staffers in political offices", "free market radicals", or just "stupid people doing stupid things - but this didn't necessarily point to a broader shift across party ranks.
"There's probably a small, noisy group of people who are agitating at the sidelines," one senior LIberal told The Sunday Age last week, "but I don't subscribe to the view that we're about to be overwhelmed by them."
One thing is certain: the Victorian Liberal Party is a particularly broad church, comprising religious right MPs such as Bernie Finn; the socially conservative Attorney-General, Robert Clark; small-l Liberals such as Baillieu, Mary Wooldridge and David Davis; economic hardheads such as Treasurer Michael O'Brien; backbenchers representing Melbourne's so-called "Bible belt" in the eastern suburbs; and Napthine himself: a 62-year-old country MP who is quite traditional on some issues, and politically pragmatic on others.
And while the philosophical divide between conservatives and moderates is often overstated, keeping the doors of the broad church open is a delicate balancing act.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the government's decision to take part in next Saturday's World Congress of Families - a controversial conference discussing abortion, euthanasia, and the "pro-family policies" of the US and Russia - despite a potential backlash from voters.
Boiled down, the conference is a who's who of the far religious right, some of whom actively promote bigotry towards gays or hold views on abortion many Victorians would find downright offensive.
Included is Angela Lanfranchi, a US doctor who insists there's a link between breast cancer and abortion. There's World Congress managing director Larry Jacobs, an ardent supporter of Vladimir Putin's laws banning gay pride demonstrations and "homosexual propaganda". There's Louise Kirk, the UK co-ordinator for Alive to the World, who warns about school curriculums being "laced through with the homosexual agenda", and there's Reverend Fred Nile, whose recent musings on the gay "lifestyle" include calls to categorise homosexuality as a mental illness.
But the political backlash isn't so much about the speakers themselves, but the fact that senior Liberals are sharing a stage with them, which critics say implies approval. Federal Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews, who is an "international ambassador" for the World Congress of Families, will open and close the event. Victorian MP Finn - who recently claimed abortion should not be acceptable in any circumstances, including cases of rape - will talk about his role as president for "March for the Babies". Eastern region MP Jan Kronberg will chair a forum on sexuality entitled "A Gift for Life", while Attorney-General Clark, Victoria's chief lawmaker, will welcome participants to the conference.
So far Napthine has played down the issue, arguing that welcoming a major event to Melbourne is consistent with the government's tourism strategy. But that Clark is attending a conference run by a group endorsing Russia's anti-gay policies isn't exactly a good look ahead of an election, particularly for a government that reckons it's made significant inroads in the gay community: expunging criminal records of men convicted of gay sex before homosexuality was decriminalised in Victoria; removing discrimination in the law for people with HIV; backing the No To Homophobia campaign.
Nor is it a good look for the Attorney-General himself, who Labor has repeatedly attacked over the years for comments he made as a Kennett government backbencher in 1995 when he likened homosexuality to spina bifida and noted that "homosexual practices form a destructive way of life".
Clark last week defended his involvement in the conference but when asked if he stood by his comments, he appeared to back away slightly. "My view is that all people are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of sexuality," he said. "The remarks I made in 1995 were in the context of a particular debate at the time, I haven't revisited those issues in recent times."
It's hardly surprising that broad-based parties court the religious right - so, too, does Labor - but problems emerge when views espoused are so extreme that they are regarded as out of touch with the mainstream. Victoria, after all, is a fairly progressive state that has traditionally been the Coalition's weakest link. At last year's federal election, the Abbott government won a two-party preferred majority in all the mainland states – except Victoria. Here, it only secured 49.8 per cent of the vote, or 16 out of 37 seats.
Or take the 2010 election, where Baillieu's personal branding as a moderate, coupled with his firm position on traditional Liberal issues such as law and order, gave him wider appeal. Indeed, before the poll, Leslie Cannold, a left-wing feminist and ethicist, wrote a piece for The Age arguing that progressive voters should consider voting for Baillieu over the Brumby government if they wanted "the Liberal Party to remain a party of Liberalism – not religious conservatism". Her argument was that if Baillieu lost, his more conservative enemies would dominate the party.
The dynamics have changed in recent years (the former premier's top aides were known to vet staff appointments, keeping at bay many people with opposing factional agendas) but Liberals say this doesn't mean the party has suddenly become a haven for ultra-conservatives. One figure put it like this: "Does the prominence of people like Kevin Andrews mean social conservativism is more apparent? Maybe. But people on all sides of politics have always had strident views - now there are simply more avenues to disseminate them."
However, Monash University politics expert Nick Economou believes there has been more of a push towards the right, partly to counter what he describes as the "lefty hegemony" of Labor and the Greens, which dominated the federal landscape during the Gillard years.
"It seems to me there's been quite a mobilisation of people who are looking to the Liberal Party as a vehicle to bring social conservatism back into the political debate," says Economou.
With the state election only three months away, Napthine's challenge is to appeal to the masses, even in the face of "punishment politics" - whereby religious groups inflict electoral pain on MPs based on their social views. At the 2010 election, for instance, Right to Life Australia took out ads in Frankston newspapers urging voters to preference Labor MP Alistair Harkness last in his battle against then Liberal candidate Geoff Shaw.
"In October 2008, the Brumby government legalised abortion," the ad said. "Now babies in the womb have no protection. Member for Frankston Alistair Harkness voted for this legislation. Vote Harkness last."
Right to Life president Margaret Tighe has vowed to adopt the same approach in November, and others are also following suit. Last week, three socially conservative parties contesting for upper house spots - the Rise Up Australia Party, the Australian Christians and the DLP - signed an agreement to work as a block, preference one another, and help candidates who espouse similar views to their own, particularly when it comes to abortion. (They want to repeal section 8 of the act, which requires doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion to refer their patients to another specialist who doesn't object.)
How much influence this will have is yet to be seen, but the sentiment is clear. "In a sense we're sending a message to the Liberals to wake up," says Danny Nalliah, Christian evangelist, head of Rise Up Australia and Catch the Fire Ministries. "This is going to be a nail-biting election, and the fact that three parties have come together to work as a bloc could shape a lot of votes in crucial seats."