UNTIL now, the contest between incumbent Gary Humphries and challenger Zed Seselja for the number one spot on the Liberal Senate ticket for September’s poll has been based on a conspiracy of deceit, manipulation and distortion – the sort of baggage no-one wants to take to an election.
But it is not too late because there is an honourable way through the muddy, messy mire in which the party and the protagonists have landed.
Ethics seem to have been the last consideration in the ambush of Humphries.
As it stands, about a third of Liberal Party members will be able to vote on who will represent their party in the Senate elections on September 14.
Putting the morality aside, if the Liberal Party cannot get themselves out of the gutter and come up with an appropriately conducted pre-selection they can expect an electoral backlash in what they consider a safe seat.
Some will argue that this is “just politics” and that Zed Seselja and his factional supporters from the “right” of the Liberal Party have operated within the rules. Fair comment! But it is a change among the Canberra Liberals to “machine politics”. This approach drags the party into the very thing it has always used to discredit ACT Labor. It is the stuff of small cliques controlling a political party through self-interest, factional fights, disenfranchisement and divisiveness.
Legislative Assembly Opposition Leader Seselja announced his nomination for pre-selection as a senator for the ACT half an hour after nominations had closed. He had only completed his nomination an hour earlier. It was within months of having been newly elected to represent the seat of Brindabella in the ACT Assembly.
It is the first time that anyone has challenged a sitting Liberal senator from the time the ACT first had senatorial representation. Had Seselja announced his intention earlier, the break with tradition would have been clear and others who were interested might also have entered the fray rather than respecting the tradition.
There is no doubt in my mind that this challenge was an ambush. It was carefully considered, planned and implemented with careful attention to timing. Even before the October ACT election there were rumours, including those circulated by media outlets such as Crikey, that Seselja was planning a run on the Senate if he did not become Chief Minister. Not surprisingly, such rumours were scotched during the election campaign. The matter was not raised publicly until the announcement.
The factional preparation included postponing the Senate pre-selection well beyond the usual 12 months. According to insiders, the excuse was that it should be conducted at the same time as the House of Representative seats.
Thanks to the timing of the ACT election, a vigorous end of the year in Federal politics and the swearing in of the ACT Assembly, many politically weary Liberal members were not attending meetings – unless specifically asked by Seselja and his cronies to ensure eligibility to vote.
Politics is often about getting the numbers. However, in this case the plan was to gain support by disenfranchising as many members of the party as possible. It worked. The result – only about 240 of the 640 Liberal members will be able to vote in the pre-selection. A condition of eligibility includes having attended a recent Liberal Party meeting. These are the people who put so much effort into supporting Seselja and his Assembly colleagues only months before as he contested the ACT election. How often have the Seselja-led Liberals demanded openness and transparency from the ACT Labor Government? Do they not remember the goose and the gander?
There is an ethical solution. It is not too late to save face and demonstrate that the ACT Liberals are interested in a fair and open democratic process. It provides a moral test for politicians!
If they have the fibre, both candidates would write to the party president and include the words: “I withdraw from the pre-selection subject to the withdrawal of the other candidate”. They can then indicate preparedness to contest the Senate nomination when party members have a fair chance to be eligible to vote. The pre-selection process could then be timed to be fair and inclusive.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health, including for a time when Gary Humphries was Chief Minister.