Just when you could have thought that the Victorian Liberal Party had finally started to focus on the task of winning government, it engaged in another round of self-flagellation.
The party had a good victory in the recent Warrandyte by-election following the retirement of long-term member and frontbencher Ryan Smith. Although the Labor Party did not field a candidate, a poor result for the Liberals would have reflected badly on the parliamentary party and the leader.
Although the win was a low bar to clear for the party, it was a pleasing result.
The Liberals were united in their campaign and able to capitalise on the growing disillusionment with the Andrews government, especially following the Commonwealth Games debacle in which at least $380 million has been spent to not host the event!
Yet within a week of the party’s success in Warrandyte, it has been rocked by two wounds of its own making.
First, the deputy leader in the upper house, Matt Bach, announced that he is planning to resign from parliament. Mr. Bach has only been a member for three years.
Although criticised for a misguided article about the party’s founder, Robert Menzies (including by this writer), Mr. Bach was one of the Parliamentary party’s most energetic members. He was a regular contributor of articles to the newspapers and appeared frequently in the media. His work ethic outshone most of his colleagues.
Mr. Bach says he is resigning to support his family, apparently to accompany his wife to the UK for work. He previously worked as a teacher in Britain, a vocation to which he is returning.
This is no doubt true, but many suspect other contributing factors. He was recently sued for comments in the article about Menzies, and has been threatened with a defamation claim—along with other members of the leadership team—by the women’s rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen.
It has been reported that the Liberal Party has no insurance against defamation claims.
Whether these events have contributed to his decision remains unknown. Whatever the reasons, his departure is a loss to the parliamentary party.
The unexpected resignation of Mr. Bach as deputy leader was followed by a quick vote for a replacement, raising concerns from some members of the parliamentary party about the haste and the absence of time to consider alternative candidates.
However, this event pales into insignificance compared with the decision of the state administrative committee to expel a leading conservative figure, Ivan Stratov.
The decision by the committee came without notice to party members.
According to media reports, it was moved by a well-known member of the left faction—or “grouping” as Liberals prefer to describe their factions—Ian Quick.
Mr. Quick has been a controversial figure in the party for many, many years. It has been claimed that he has been the power behind recent presidents of the party.
Whether this is true or otherwise, his recent action has generated ongoing division in the party just when a sense of unity was forming.
The ongoing factional warfare is destructive. As Bob Hawke once quipped, “If you can’t govern yourselves, how can you govern the country”—or in this case, the state?
Many powerbrokers in state divisions of the Liberal Party seem to have forgotten that the party must embrace a broad church in order to win government and that power-sharing is necessary.
The Labor Party has managed this process with formal factions. Although imperfect and not without failure from time to time—usually because one faction or another has refused to share power—Labor is more successful.
Critical to electoral success is an appreciation that the different interests in the community—that various members of the party represent—must be properly managed. Look at how successful long term leaders such as John Howard were in maintaining unity in the party.
The Victorian Liberal Party has much to learn, especially the faceless men and women who currently control its internal affairs.
Until it does, it will remain in opposition, disappointing the millions of people who look to it to represent their values and interests.
Membership has collapsed as Liberal supporters desert a party in disarray. None of this seems of concern to the operatives who expend more energy on fighting their internal opponents than the Labor Party!
Premier Daniel Andrews must be rejoicing that—at the very time he has been under the most pressure for years—his opponents are engaged in another bout of self-destruction.
It is time for federal intervention into the dysfunctional Victorian Liberal Party. In fact, it is well overdue!