The Liberal Party’s preselection for the Pittwater by-election has taken an interesting turn with the nomination of former Federal MP Stephen Mutch, who if successful could conjure an interesting election from what ought to be a straightforward Liberal walkover. Mutch threw his hat into the ring last week at a time when the preselection was looking increasingly like a lay down misere for Paul Nicolaou, favoured candidate of the "small-‘l’ liberal" faction known as "The Group" who nonetheless had cross-factional support. Other prominent figures who had been mentioned were progressively falling by the wayside, including Paul Ritchie ("close to the hard right and Christian fundamentalists", according to the Sun Herald), Robert Webster, Jason Falinksi and Adrienne Ryan, more than one of whom said they were withdrawing to give Nicolaou a clean run. Had he been given one, it seems clear the Liberals would have defused the threat of a rival independent getting enough traction to threaten the party’s hold on the seat.
Mutch threatens to make life interesting because he is an identifiable figure of the Right, having lost his Federal seat of Cook in 1998 when a coup by moderates delivered preselection to former Greiner-Fahey Government minister Bruce Baird. This was a major controversy at the time partly because it went against the wishes of the Prime Minister, who is now making it clear that he wants Nicolaou in Pittwater. It would not be hard to sell a Mutch preselection win as both an act of factional revenge and the coup de grace of a power grab that ended the career – and very nearly the life – of the popular former member. Whether this perception is fair or not is neither here nor there.
Community groups and writers of letters to the editor have been vociferous in their demands not only for a locally based candidate, which is predictable enough, but also for an ideological moderate, which is more telling. Saturday’s Manly Daily publicised a call by Harvey Rose and Jim Revitt, present and past holders of the title "Pittwater Citizen of the Year", for the election of an independent candidate in defiance of the "hard Liberal right", who stood "clearly against the widespread view of moderate Liberals throughout Pittwater". Rose said he was considering taking on the job himself. Another candidate who might have been of interest was Patricia Giles, a former Pittwater mayor who told Rebecca Woolley of the Manly Daily she had been approached by Labor with an offer of campaign assistance if she ran as an independent (which was denied by state general secretary Mark Arbib). She will instead run as the endorsed candidate of Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, forestalling any possibility that she might harvest support from those who see the Brogden episode in terms of a takeover of the Liberal Party by the "religious right".
The Manly Daily names four confirmed candidates for Liberal preselection besides Nicolaou and Mutch – Robert Stokes, Stephen Choularton and Julie Hegarty, who were all covered in my earlier post, plus local businessman Mike Musgrave. The Sun Herald reports that the decision will be made by "a conference of 48 members from local branches and 48 from the state executive and the state council", of which the latter groups are often claimed to be under the control of the David Clarke/Opus Dei religious right. As much as the election buff in me wants them to pick Mutch, it will be Nicolaou if they have any sense at all.
UPDATE (19/10/05): Via Crikey, the Manly Daily reports that Pittwater Mayor Alex McTaggart is considering running as an independent.