Standing on the side of one of Melbourne’s busiest roads, the Nepean Highway, Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy promised to install computerised traffic lights that change colour based on the amount of traffic.
A few minutes later his roads spokesman, David Hodgett, couldn’t precisely explain to reporters how the traffic lights would know when it was safe to turn green.
Victorians will decide in just over four weeks whether the Liberals should be given a green light to form government.
In opposition, political parties like to regroup, resolve differences discretely, and husband resources for the next election.
The Victorian Liberal Party, under president and veteran political operator Michael Kroger, has engaged in epic and ongoing internal and external fights that has left some party activists frustrated, demoralised and sceptical of winning the November 24 poll.
Mixture of problems
The party’s difficulties appear to be a mixture of a strong and willful personality in charge, not enough money, and a generational clash between an older membership and young activists.
Kroger denies the party is in trouble and says the criticism comes from internal opponents and doesn’t reflect reality. “The party is more energised and we have more people involved than every before, our asset base has never been stronger and fund raising is at record levels,” he says.
A decision to put its central Melbourne office building on the market for about $30 million – which seemed from the outside as being triggered by a fiscal crisis – is clever timing that may take advantage of strong property prices, Kroger says.
But raising money for a campaign against a well-resourced and reasonably popular government hasn’t been easy, party officials say. “Let’s just say there is less business interest than in 2014”, when the last election was held, says a member of one of the committees that oversee the party’s operations.
Big-ego legal contest
A big-ego legal contest between Kroger and the party’s main funder, the Cormack Foundation, has cost about $3 million. Kroger hasn’t dropped a threat to sue Cormack’s present and past directors, including two leaders of the Melbourne business establishment, Charles Goode and Hugh Morgan.
Party activists are frustrated that Kroger won’t accept a peace deal being negotiated by federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, which could deliver the party $6 million to $8 million in much-needed election funding. Kroger has argued the foundation’s $68 million investments belong to the Liberal Party and should be handed over.
The 44-year-old Guy – who seems to have little or no control over the party apparatus – insists he is happy with Kroger’s presidency, although hardly lavishes him with praise. “I am not going to go into a precis of Michael’s performance but I support Michael,” he says.
Help rebuild finances
One member of the party’s administrative committee estimates net assets have fallen from $2 million in 2013-14 to negative $4 million today.
While the party recently appointed a new treasurer and forensic accountant, David Mond, to help rebuild its finances, some MPs are circumventing the party and raising election funding directly from donors.
The Cormack Foundation has promised $1 million for the state campaign, but is channelling the money through Guy and avoiding the Kroger-controlled head office, according to a person close to the foundation. Guy, Kew MP Tim Smith and Caulfield MP David Southwick, have collected $1.5 million for the election and are keeping the money quarantined from head office, according to a party source.
Party officials don’t hold a lot of optimism about their prospects at the state election. The Victorian economy is strong, infrastructure is getting built, and Premier Daniel Andrews’ emphasis on social policy has compensated for his somewhat bland political personality.
A betting website, SportsBet, says 90 per cent of bets on the election are for a Labor Party victory, and is offering odds on Andrews 1.52 to one. “I think we are in with a shot but it is going to be extremely difficult to win,” says a party official.
Guy has promised Europe-style high-speed trains, two new big freeways, replacing busy intersections with underpasses and tougher crime policies. He has also made a fashion statement. Male Liberal candidates are copying his stab at clothing unconformity: dark suit with elastic-sided boots.
Malcolm Turnbull’s removal as prime minister hasn’t helped the state Liberal Party, party officials say. The leadership change made the party look inconsistent, and made it harder to get attention for its alterative policies, they say.
Liberal MPs are aghast at the lack of discipline within the party apparatus. Early this year a member of the administrative committee, Ian Quick, began publishing a private newsletter that detailed what he portrayed as manipulation of party elections. “The party is being ripped apart by people who want control at any price,” he wrote.
The newsletters were eventually quoted in the press, embarrassing the party. Then, a few months ago, a fake version of Quick’s newsletter was sent to many party members and MPs – one source estimated the distribution list at 8000 people – in an apparent retribution towards Quick.
Party members in his faction expressed concern that a person or people with access to an official database may have escalated the dispute, adding to perceptions of party unprofessionalism. (Quick didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Some of the intra-party tension is driven by MPs wanting to keep their seats from younger activists. The most prominent of the young pretenders is conservative faction leader Marcus Bastiaan, who was positioning to succeed Kroger as party president early next year.
Business before politics
After helping seize control of the party from the moderate faction, Bastiaan resigned as a party vice president in September and stepped back from factional organising, along with his now-pregnant wife, Stephanie. The departure surprised many political observers, and may have been a sign the career opportunities in the party aren’t perceived to be good for his generation.
Only one federal Liberal seat in Victoria opened up this year, the highly marginal outer-suburban seat of Chisholm, which incumbent Julia Banks has likely made unwinnable by accusing her own party of bullying. The state Liberal Party may be in opposition for at least four years too.
In addition to taking time off to deal with a family illness, the 28-year-old Bastiaan wants to develop a business career before considering a formal entry into politics, according to a person familiar with his thoughts.
From the comfortable bayside suburb of Brighton, Bastiaan led an assault across the state that shifted power to his conservative faction in an alliance with Kroger. But Bastiaan and one of his allies, Karina Okotel, split this year, and no single grouping now controls the party apparatus, party sources say.
Bastiaan and some of his young supporters express frustration with an ageing Liberal Party membership reluctant to remove sitting MPs. “You can’t replace them because 70-year-olds vote for people who know their grandchild’s name,” says one.
After the Liberal Party lost the Sydney seat of Wentworth, national Liberal president Nick Greiner made an observation that could serve as a warning to Victoria.
“One can only hope the Liberal Party learns the painfully obviously lesson,” he says. “It’s about unity at the end of the day.”