FOR Peter Reith, a veteran of the Howard government who was at the centre of some of its biggest controversies, life after politics hasn't taken away an appetite for the fray. Reith is now attempting to make a political comeback - of a kind.
Having just completed the Liberal Party's post-election review, the 60-year-old is full of ideas for change. He wants to become the party's federal president to implement a major overhaul of the organisation and prepare for an election that, on present polling, the Coalition is favourite to win.
The return of Reith means an unexpected challenge for the incumbent, Alan Stockdale, a former Victorian treasurer, who took up the presidency after the 2007 federal defeat and is seeking a final year in the job.
Some senior party figures have been in denial, hoping the Reith challenge would evaporate. No chance. ''I'm campaigning,'' Reith declares. Last week he admitted he wanted the job now because he was ''impatient''.
He's running on a platform of ''a stronger party to help win the election'', promising to have seminars on party reform around the country, because ''you definitely have to bring people with you''.
In a wry reference to his reputation as a head kicker, he likens his approach to pursuing party change to his (conciliatory) 1996 negotiations with then Democrat leader Cheryl Kernot over industrial relations legislation - ''it's not like dealing with the wharfies''.
The contest is mobilising a one-time ministerial colleague of Reith's, Nick Minchin, who is rallying the federal party's right wing for Stockdale, in the vote among the 100-plus federal council delegates who will decide the president when they meet in Canberra on June 25.
There are some notable parallels between Reith's reform blueprint and the ideas of John Faulkner, who last week savagely indicted the ALP, as he promoted reforms he, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr have proposed, to a cool reception from the powerbrokers.
Reith says the Liberals are in nothing like the bad shape Labor is in, but he, like Faulkner, is urging party members be given a greater voice. Both he and Faulkner are attracted to trying out the radical approach of ''primaries'' that allow outsiders a vote in preselections. Reith insists the Liberals certainly need to have rank-and-file plebiscites for preselections - the system used in Victoria - across the country, rather than the present patchwork.
''When [party members] pay their money they want something back. They want to be heard on policy. They want a say in preselections,'' Reith says.
As a minister, Reith is remembered especially for the 1998 waterfront battle, when as workplace minister he was the government's hard face, and for the 2001 children overboard affair, in which as defence minister he released pictures purporting to show asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, when no such thing had happened.
In between, Reith's career took a major knock after it was revealed his son had, unknown to Reith, run up a large bill on his father's official Telecard.
Though his politics are to the right in the party, Reith has never quite fitted a mould - for example, he was on the republican side of the 1999 debate as a ''direct electionist'' to boot.
In the early years of the Howard government, Reith had been regarded as a chance for future leader, though never with as strong odds as Peter Costello, who progressively consolidated his position as heir to a throne he ultimately didn't inherit.
By 2001, Reith had had enough: he announced before the election (and before the children overboard affair) that he would not run again.
Out of Parliament, he did some work (controversially) for the defence firm Tenix, before the Coalition appointed him to be an executive director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Returning to Melbourne in 2009, he was set back for a time by a heart bypass operation. He did a ''couple of advisory things for professional associations'' and he has a 48 hectare hobby farm at Stoneyford, west of Colac, on which he runs 60 Angus steers.
His land is next door to his brother's property and on his trips from Melbourne he bunks down there.
He plans to build a house on the farm this year but may delay if he wins the presidency because ''it's a pretty big job being federal president, if you go at it hard''.
Apart from the election report, he's done some mentoring of younger politicians and encouraged others to do so. He's got a regular talking-head spot on Sky TV. And he's always ready to fill a gap. Last week, Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce had to cancel a trip to Melbourne, so Reith did two of Joyce's three engagements. He had one ready-made topic - the story of his bid for the presidency had just broken.
Reith is, essentially, a man in search of a job. Or, more precisely, an interest and a purpose, since the federal presidency is an honorary position.
Reith says he wants the presidency immediately because ''being as well organised as we can be takes time. If we wait another year, it's only a year and a bit to the [federal] election. Then people say, 'Should we do this now?' ''
The much wider use of plebiscites should be in place before the preselections that will be coming up for the next election, he says. And a top-level policy committee linking the organisation and parliamentary party should be re-established.
The federal party used to have such a committee, including MPs and organisational representatives, but it fell into abeyance; nobody seems to recall when. Reith has urged the party to release his report so members can see the full extent of what should be done, but it hasn't done so.
He points to the review that was carried out in the Victorian party: ''the Victorian report says you have to give people a reason to join'', and the state party has had a big overhaul under its recently retired president David Kemp.
''They're increasing members and they are having real debates,'' he told SkyTV on Friday. ''But at the federal level, I'd have to say we don't just stage manage the situation, we've taken the stage down and put it in the back cupboard.''
The Reith-Stockdale tussle presents a difficult situation for Tony Abbott, who doesn't want to get diverted by an internal party stoush, or to be seen publicly taking sides.
Abbott and Reith go back a long way: Abbott was junior minister in Reith's workplace portfolio, and later succeeded him. Early on, they had a minor set-to.
Abbott writes in Battlelines: ''On my first day as his junior minister, it was Peter Reith, not me, who chaired an officials' meeting addressing a funding crisis in the Job Network, even though it was my immediate responsibility. The next morning I fronted my ministerial boss to say that I had no intention of remaining a glorified errand boy. Reith, I suspect, had rather relished the prospect of solving the Job Network's then financial problems but readily agreed that he would leave it to me.
''He expected to be kept informed of major developments and was happy to offer counsel if I sought but would only intervene if I was making a hash of things. Reith, in fact, acted as a political 'elder brother' to many of his colleagues and was a big loss to the government after the 2001 election.''
Reith says, ''We never had a problem. Tony did a great job with the Job Network. I had policy control; his job was to put a package together. I said 'talk to everyone'. It was perfect for him. Tony loves to hear the arguments - he's intellectually curious.
''There's been nothing ever but good constructive stuff with Tony.''
Nevertheless, one issue with Reith's candidacy is whether, as a high-profile figure, he would provide a competing focus to Abbott - especially whether he would seek to be a policy player in areas such as industrial relations.
One Liberal says: ''There is a concern he will do his own thing''. Meanwhile a Stockdale advocate declares: ''There is a fear Reith would become an alternative source of comment.''
It's a worry of some close to Abbott.
Reith supporters are confident he'd be restrained. Reith says that if he got the job he wouldn't engage in policy debates. ''I don't see that as the role of the federal president.''
His decision to run ''is to be supportive of the Liberal Party - not to push a policy. Because of my former role, I'm particularly committed not to leverage off the presidency. I have absolutely nothing to say [on industrial relations].
''I wouldn't be speaking about policy. The role of the president is to be a conduit for the party as a whole - that's been the right model, and it will continue. Presidents have passed on the views they believe reflect [those of] the party membership - they should do that, and have in the past. You don't give public lectures to the party leadership; it just creates division.''
Of course, that doesn't mean Reith wouldn't put his views behind the scenes to his one-time junior. But, as the Job Network incident showed, Abbott is quite capable of having his own view, especially now he's top dog.
Industrial relations is going to be one of the trickiest areas for the opposition leader between now and the election, with sections of the party and business wanting the Liberals to commit to changing Labor's Fair Work Act, and Abbott anxious not to do anything that would lay him open to a WorkChoices scare.
Minchin says that Stockdale has done a good job, taking up the task after the 2007 defeat and steering the party through three federal leaders. ''He's championed organisational reforms to give greater authority to the federal executive, particularly in relation to federal elections and to expand the federal council to make it more representative.''
Picking up on the unease about the possibility of Reith developing too high a profile, Minchin says that Stockdale has been ''appropriately behind the scenes, not using the position to seek a high profile, and he has been working very effectively with the parliamentary party''.
THE Reith camp has speculated that Minchin wants the position himself in another year, but Minchin denies this. ''I'm very confident that there will be a strong field of potential candidates … as and when Alan Stockdale stands down - but I will not be one of them,'' he says.
Minchin's efforts are annoying some in the organisation, who see him as an interfering parliamentarian, even though he retires when the old Senate finishes on June 30.
Liberal Party vice-president Danielle Blain says: ''The federal council ought to be left to elect its leader free from interference by parliamentarians - other than those who are part of the council.
''The organisation doesn't interfere in the election of the parliamentary leader.''
The Minchin stand is making for counter-intuitive politics. In the old days, Reith and Minchin would usually be found in the same camp (though not on the issue of an Australian republic). So would Minchin and former foreign minister and current party vice-president Alexander Downer. But Downer is backing Reith, as are some prominent moderates in the party such as Tom Harley and former minister Amanda Vanstone.
Harley, one of four Liberal vice-presidents, says there's an attempt to cast the contest in left-right terms. ''It's not - it's about the pace of reform. The idea of Peter Reith as a Trotskyite is a a bit absurd,'' he says.
''The thing that distinguishes the discussion in the Liberal Party from that in Labor is that we are not arguing about whether we need change - we're arguing about the pace of it and our confidence in the [organisational] leadership of the party to deliver it.''
It's impossible to know who has the numbers. The Minchin lobbying is very potent; the ''don't rock the boat, don't take a risk'' argument is strong. On the other side, Reith is said to have the backing of John Howard. He has the support of all four vice-presidents (the other one is Queensland's David Russell), the Western Australian and Queensland state presidents, and many who have been disillusioned with Stockdale's limited change agenda.
Some votes remain up in the air; there is a lot of lobbying to go. The Liberals know they have a real contest on their hands.
Michelle Grattan is political editor.