While the west was in focus, the south was crumbling
The chaos in the Victorian Liberal Party is a setback for Tony Abbott’s quest to break Julia Gillard’s stranglehold on the state. Victoria is the weakest mainland state for the Sydney-based federal Opposition Leader who has mounted a concerted effort to build up his stocks.
The turmoil caused by the shock resignation of Ted Baillieu six months before the federal poll is a distraction that means crucial time, energy and resources that were supposed to be entirely devoted to Abbott’s campaign will now be chewed up trying to sell new Premier Denis Napthine.
“This is shambolic,” says a senior Liberal. But it could also be a surprise silver lining. It will depend how the state Liberals perform. Further turmoil will be more grim news for Abbott. But if Napthine can deliver the decisive and stable government he promises and the party unites behind him, it can help Abbott.
Federal Liberals had been in despair about Baillieu’s performance, with one senior figure recently warning it “will hurt us in the election”. This became heightened by the secret tapes at the centre of the latest drama.
And while voters do know the difference between state and federal issues, it has hurt the Liberal brand in a state that is still trying to make up its mind about Abbott.
He has made close to 90 separate trips to Victoria since the 2010 election after the Liberals failed to win vital marginal seats that could have made him prime minister. His No.1 target is the nation’s most marginal of Corangamite where the Liberals failed by only 771 votes.
“I’m doing my damnedest to make sure Victoria is getting an abundance of attention from me and my frontbench. I feel like Melbourne is my second home these days,” he said.
Even this week, when Abbott crashed Gillard’s five-day blitz of western Sydney, he found time to squeeze in a fundraiser in Melbourne and visit a family in the seat of La Trobe to talk about the cost of living. La Trobe was one of only two seats Labor gained at the 2010 election. The other was McEwen, also in Victoria.
Some federal Liberals are nervous the fall of Baillieu - a first term leader like Kevin Rudd - could undercut criticism Abbott has thrown at Gillard.
As one federal figure noted: “Didn’t the Victorians notice what happened with Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard? He’s an unelected leader without a mandate.”
Abbott insists it is different saying Victoria had an “orderly transition” with no faceless men: “Ted resigned and was replaced by a supporter as Premier.”
Baillieu’s decision to jump and put the interests of his party and his state first has also sparked chatter about whether Gillard would fall on her sword for the greater good of Labor and hand over to one of her supporters - perhaps Bill Shorten.
There’s also another potential flashpoint for Abbott in Victoria over the seat of Mallee where the Nationals’ John Forrest is retiring after 20 years.
Traditionally, when a Lib or Nat retires, both contest the vacancy. The Liberals have been eating up Nationals seats with Sharman Stone claiming the Shepparton-based electorate of Murray in 1996 and Sussan Ley stole the Albury-based Farrer in 2001 when Tim Fischer retired.
Victorian Liberals reckon they can do the same in Mallee.
Darren Chester, who holds the federal seat of Gippsland for the Nationals, warns there will be a fierce battle if they try. “It would be foolish for the Liberals to contest the seat when they should be focusing our scare resources on defeating Labor candidates and getting Australia the better government it deserves.”
“Fighting among ourselves in Mallee will waste hundreds of thousands of dollars and bring us no closer to government.”
Chester points out the Nationals made the mature decision at the last election not to contest the rural seat of Wannon held by the Liberals when David Hawker retired.
A war between the Libs and the Nats over the safest Coalition seat in the country is the last thing Abbott needs in Victoria.
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