It seems increasingly likely that we will soon be enjoying a super Saturday of federal by-elections, with a raft of former ministers preparing to take the money and run. While some have suggested the exodus might begin as soon as this week, other reports indicate that the relevant suspects are being urged to stay on until after the budget to minimise any backlash in their seats. Brendan Nelson had this to say on ABC radio yesterday:
I have spoken to both Peter Costello and Alexander Downer, I want them to make decisions that are in the interests of their electorates and of their families, and then of themselves and our party, and I expect they will make those decisions very soon … if hypothetically speaking we do have a number of members who choose to retire some time over the course of this year, then it would be preferable that they did so on one day, but … that’s a self-evident truth.
Seats of interest are as follows:
Mayo (Liberal 7.1%): Alexander Downer is making little effort to appear interested in an ongoing career in parliament: last Thursday he skipped question time to do lunch with Greg Sheridan of The Australian, and this week he took up a non-paying fortnight-long radio gig on Adelaide’s FiveAA. Rick Wallace of The Australian reports jockeying for Liberal preselection is on in earnest:
One-term federal members David Fawcett, from Wakefield in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, and Kym Richardson, from Kingston in the south, are strong contenders, as is Mr Downer’s former chief of staff Chris Kenny. Bob Day, a successful businessman and unlucky Liberal candidate for the northern suburbs seat of Makin, is also believed to be considering a tilt. State MP Iain Evans state party leader until ousted by ex-SAS officer Martin Hamilton-Smith last year has a strong family connection to the electorate and local branch recruitment, and may be looking to get out of state politics after his recent demotion in a reshuffle.
Mark Kenny turns up a different name in today’s Advertiser:
South Australian business leader Jason Kuchel is being considered as a possible star replacement for former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer should the latter retire … Mr Kuchel, 38, described by a senior Liberal as an impressive young conservative, is the chief executive officer of the SA Chamber of Mines and Energy but has never been a member of the Liberal Party. He is a serving member of the Mt Barker district council. Liberal sources confirmed his name is now under serious consideration as party strategists contemplate a likely by-election in Mr Downer’s safe seat of Mayo. While Mr Kuchel is not well known in the Liberal Party, senior figures told The Advertiser that his position at the head of a powerful industry body suggested he was the kind of high-profile local candidate needed to retain the seat.
Higgins (Liberal 7.0%): Peter Costello’s long-standing friend and ally Michael Kroger has given the next best thing to official confirmation of Costello’s intention to quit, saying a fortnight ago he had indicated that he is leaving the Parliament. However, Gerard McManus of the Herald-Sun reports of an apparent rift between the two over who should succeed him, potentially producing a Melbourne Cup field when he steps down as early as April:
The ex-treasurer is believed to be backing state director Julian Sheezel, but the Kroger camp is resisting … Mr Sheezel, 38, has been Liberal state director for almost five years, and was originally considered a shoo-in for preselection, but senior Libs say he has ruffled feathers. Other possible contenders are Jason Aldworth, who once worked at Mr Kroger’s boutique bank and is now a strategist with Crosby/Textor; Tom Elliott, son of former party treasurer John Elliott, Harold Holt’s grandson, Robert, and lawyer-turned-minister Rufus Black. Adviser Ross Fox has been touted, as have state MP Michael O’Brien and Institute of Public Affairs director John Roskam.
Talk of the seat being used to accommodate a comeback by Mal Brough, defeated in his Queensland seat of Longman at the November 24 election, quickly abated. Michelle Grattan of The Age reported last week of concern in the Liberal camp that whoever gets the nod won’t be able to take the by-election for granted.
UPDATE: Andrew Landeryou has a breathtakingly comprehensive account of the Liberal numbers game in Higgins.
Gippsland (Nationals 5.9%): Perhaps the most exciting prospect in electoral terms is the possibility of a keenly fought three-way contest if Peter McGauran abandons the family fiefdom of Gippsland. The Liberals are reportedly confident they can win the seat from the Nationals, but the seat is also the best chance of a Labor by-election boilover if things go pear-shaped for Brendan Nelson. Andrew Landeryou relates gossip suggesting that those with an eye on the Liberal nomination include Phil Davis, a state upper house MP with a reportedly strong presence in local branches, and Julian McGauran, Senator and brother of Peter who defected from the Nationals to the Liberals in January 2006.
Berowra (Liberal 8.9%): One might think that Philip Ruddock, who turns 65 next month, would be a prime candidate for an early departure. In December, Tony Wright of The Age wrote that Liberal hopefuls were already circling for the chance to replace Ruddock when he inevitably pulled the plug. However, Ruddock has publicly indicated his intention to serve out a full term, and Brendan Nelson sounds convinced he will do so.
Lyne (Nationals 8.6%): While he has not been a focus of the most recent reports, it is widely felt that Mark Vaile might not be inclined to stay the full three-year course.