Sarah Henderson triumphed in Corangamite. Kelly O’Dwyer disgraced herself as a villain. Sandra Mercer-Moore’s “project” unexpectedly grabbed the Deakin crown. In Australia’s first political party founded on feminist principles, the women loom large and are in charge.
The most intriguing aspect of the two big weekend preselection tussles for the Liberals in Victoria was the notable backroom roles of powerful women behind the scenes.
While Labor has affirmative action quotas, which many of its blokes are keen to overturn or at least subvert, most forget that the Liberal party has effectively a 50% affirmative action system (not that they call it that) for its internal offices with each gender receiving an equal allocation. It’s a legacy of the formation of the party by Menzies who teamed up with some very well resourced, conservative mass-membership women’s groups like the Australian Women’s National League in the 1940s. We think it’s fascinating that Australia’s lead conservative party has such a proud feminist history.
And it’s not just history either, in two key preselections, Corangamite and Deakin, women loomed large. In Corangamite, former newsreader Sarah Henderson, with the strong backing of federal leader Tony Abbott, triumphed winning an absolute majority in the first round over Rod Nockles, a former Costello adviser. It was a very strong showing by Henderson and affords her a big opportunity to take Victoria’s most marginal Labor seat after a wobbly campaign effort in 2010. Most think she’ll do much better second time around.
Nockles was strongly most actively by Higgins MP Kelly O’Dwyer who spent weeks rubbishing Henderson over the phone to all and sundry.
O’DWYER IN THE NAUGHTY CORNER
It was the latest flash-point between the occasionally divided Costello-Kroger group, with the Costello elements like O’Dwyer backing former Costello staffer Rod Nockles and the Kroger types supporting Henderson. The latter group wanted the locals to resolve the matter, thinking that Henderson would benefit from a lack of big-city meddling.
This was despite a clear sense coming from the Leader’s office, expressed and communicated through heavy-hitters like Kevin Andrews and Andrew Robb, that they expected Sarah Henderson should prevail.
O’Dwyer is believed to have been complicit in the spreading of a dirt file on Henderson which essentially rehashed old muck, most of which had been published online before, which massively backfired this time among members.
“Very unfortunate behaviour,” a Liberal close to Leader Tony Abbott told VEXNEWS, reflecting on reports of O’Dwyer’s unsuccessful meddling.
Another, who closely monitored the situation told us “O’Dwyer has fallen out with most of her federal colleagues from Victoria, who look upon her self-promotion with disdain. (She is) looked upon as a trouble-maker by Tony Abbott.”
O’Dwyer’s motivation in this was either explained as a most unsisterly determination to knock off a presentable, equally ambitious woman or to add to her power-base by helping get her mate Rod Nockles into the party room.
Meanwhile, in the preselection in Deakin, a shock result occurred that requires some explaining.
The surprise/shock winner was Michael Sukkar (pronounced Souk-ah), a tax lawyer from Ashurst, the renamed Blake Dawson law firm.
He was described by one well-informed player as a “Sandra Mercer-Moore project.” The Metropolitan Womens Vice-President is a respected behind-the-scenes power-broker and is understood to have very thoroughly prepped the newbie for the Liberal preselection process “trial by ordeal” of speech-making and interview-panelling that through its rigour can create random events. The strength of his presentation and backing from Mercer-Moore played a vital role in his victory.
Essentially Sukkar slipped through the middle of two other strongly supported candidates, well-regarded Baillieu workplace relations adviser John Pesutto and Michelle Frazer, the Womens Council president. Pesutto, supported by the Baillieu faction, such as it is, had been campaigning for months, with his boss’s blessing and also the active encouragement of former member Phil Baressi.
There was a strong field of seven candidates, including impressive former Melbourne candidate Simon Olsen, local councillor Andrew Munro, Terry Barnes, Phillip Fusco, with Fusco first eliminated, then Barnes, then Munroe, ahead of the other three. The quality of the candidates is thought to reflect a high level of Liberal confidence that they will take back Deakin with a big swing at the next election, still likely to be late next year.
It then got interesting, Liberal sources familiar with the situation have explained. Sukkar and Olsen dramatically tied for third in the next round of balloting. Sukkar then won the nail-biting run-off vote. Pesutto was firmly in the lead at that point but was unable to increase his tally in subsequent rounds. The second-last ballot was crucial, a tussle between Sukkar and Frazer, in effect, to decide which of the “anti-Pesutto” candidates would face-off against him. Critically, had Frazer prevailed over Sukakr, many of those who’d voted for Sukkar weren’t willing to vote for her on the basis “she wasn’t up to it.” A bit harsh, but that’s how preselections are.
In the end, Sukkar prevailed in that round and went on to defeat Pesutto, who is now expected to put up his hand for a state seat and could emerge as a cabinet minister if the Baillieu show can get itself re-elected, which doesn’t always seem probable but certainly should be likely.
Those writing him off, in his party and without, should look for signs the sleeping giant Premier Baillieu is slowly waking up. Even ABC’s Jon Faine thinks so: