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Gloves off in the Liberal Party as preselection battle for Brighton erupts

Bayside councillor Felicity Frederico is in the running for preselection for Brighton. Photo: Supplied James Newbury is running as a Brighton preselection candidate Photo: Supplied
Nanjing Night Net

Upper house MP Margaret Fitzherbert is seeking preselection for the lower house seat of Brighton Photo: Supplied

Minister Louise Asher is retiring. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer

It’s the bayside electorate that takes in some of Melbourne’s most affluent suburbs.

But beneath the surface of its well-heeled veneer, Brighton is a hotbed of Liberal Party warfare: a blue-ribbon battleground that can shift alliances, test the authority of political leaders, and leave its casualties reeling for years.

This much became clear in 1999, when then-premier Jeff Kennett drafted Louise Asher from the upper house to replace retiring member Alan Stockdale – paving the way for a bitter showdown with his factional rivals of the time: Peter Costello and Michael Kroger.

Seventeen years later, another preselection battle looms: this time to find Asher’s replacement after the veteran MP announced she would retire at the next Victorian poll.

Asher’s decision has set the scene for a hard-fought contest between three strong candidates backed by a number of Liberal heavyweights: upper house MP Margaret Fitzherbert (who has support from former prime minister John Howard); Bayside councillor Felicity Frederico (who has a letter of encouragement from Tony Abbott) and former Coalition adviser James Newbury (who has the endorsement of Liberal stalwart Peter Reith).

But with two years until the next election, the battle for Brighton is also a litmus test for opposition leader Matthew Guy – and for gender equality in the party more broadly.

Boiled down, the Liberals have a “women problem” that Guy wants to shake. So much so, that at a state council meeting in April, the 42-year-old MP set an ambitious target to lift his party’s female representation in parliament by a further 10 per cent at every election, rising from 27 per cent this year to 37 per cent in 2018, and to almost half by 2022.

“If we want more women in our state parliamentary ranks then we have to get serious,” he warned at the time. “Thinking about the issue 10 minutes before pre-selection nominations close is not a solution. It’s an excuse.”

But Guy’s attempt to boost the number of women in his party’s ranks was dealt a blow this month, when Asher – once a vocal supporter of greater female representation – issued a glowing reference for Newbury, describing him as “one of the most outstanding individuals with whom I have had the pleasure to work”.

“James possesses the ideal combination of characteristics and skills that the Member for Brighton should have,” she wrote, “a person with significant policy expertise; a person who treats community members with respect and listens to their concerns; a person integrated into the Brighton community; and a person with the potential to secure rapid promotion to a senior level in the Parliamentary party.”

While it later emerged that Asher was also planning to write a reference for Fitzherbert (who had spent almost a decade as her electorate chair), many of her colleagues were unimpressed.

After all, Asher had broken a few glass ceilings over the years – she was the first female president of the Young Liberals; the first to serve as deputy under three Liberal leaders; the first to achieve 20 years in state Parliament – and had often talked up the need for more women to be preselected into safe seats so that they, too, could obtain senior roles.

Endorsing Newbury was seen by some a galling example of rhetoric failing to match reality. As one senior source put it this week: “what on earth was she thinking?”

Others, however, are more sympathetic. Now held by a margin of 9.77 per cent, Brighton has always been a conservative stronghold, but unlike other prized Liberal electorates, such as Malvern or Hawthorn, delegates have at least picked women to represent them on two occasions: Asher in 1999 and Jeannette Patrick in 1976. As some in the party have pointed out, if the Liberals want to solve their gender woes, they will need to look well beyond Brighton to do so.

Adding to the tension is the fact that Newbury is a polarising character – which partly explains why Abbott took the unusual step of intervening this month by writing a letter supporting Frederico, saying he would be “disappointed and surprised” if she was not selected.

Insiders say the endorsement was a partial swipe at Newbury, who fell foul of Abbott and his former chief of staff Peta Credlin after he openly criticised the way they were running the party while employed as a federal adviser. While supporters say the 38-year-old is sharp and “part of the next generation”, detractors question his work ethic and broader credentials.

As one Fitzherbert ally told The Sunday Age: “Margaret has a huge history as an advocate for liberalism, and has scores on the board locally. James is a political hack.”

Whatever the case, early indications suggest this preselection race will be as fiercely fought as the last. Fitzherbert, a former chair of the Women’s Hospital who contested the 2014 state election while battling bowel cancer, is well-respected among her peers and has broad cross-factional support – both within the state parliamentary team and the Liberal Party’s administrative wing.

Frederico, an ex-mayor who is credited with improving sporting facilities for women and girls in the Bayside area and helped run a number of local campaigns for Andrew Robb in the seat of Goldstein is also regarded a decent chance.

“I respect all the candidates and think any one of them will do a good job, but if you look at Felicity’s track record and energy, she ticks all the boxes,” Robb says.

And Newbury – polarising or not – has had a lengthy career working at the highest levels of state and federal government: including in the offices of Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, and Denis Napthine.

On December 3, preselectors will decide which one deserves to inherit the prized Liberal seat. Until then, the gloves are off.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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