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Victoria: outgoing Senator defends the right of Michael Kroger to participate in the preselection process.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD: The bitter internal row in the Victorian Liberal Party is intensifying today with a federal senator coming in to defend the behind-the-scenes party heavyweight, Michael Kroger, against attacks by Premier Jeff Kennett. Karen Synon finishes her Senate term at midnight, Wednesday. Ironically, she’s also the victim of a preselection tussle involving Premier Kennett.


But before she goes, Senator Synon has defended the right of Mr Kroger to participate in the preselection process. Her comments come as a preselection battle between forces aligned with Treasurer Peter Costello and Premier Kennett continue to spill over into the public arena. In Melbourne, Mark Willacy.


MARK WILLACY: As preselection brawls go, the battle for Brighton promises to be a heavyweight affair. In one corner, Victoria’s Small Business and Tourism Minister, Louise Asher; in the other, long-time Liberal adviser, Mitch Fifield. But this is really only the warm-up bout - the real interest is in those who are backing the two candidates. In the Fifield camp are close friends Michael Kroger and Peter Costello. In the Asher corner is Jeff Kennett and Peter Reith, an interesting alliance to say the least. It’s not so much Mr Reith lining up with Jeff Kennett as the workplace relations minister lining up against his main prime ministerial rival, Peter Costello.


So far all four men have made their positions clear in the media, none more forcefully than Jeff Kennett, whose tumultuous relationship with Michael Kroger has become the stuff of Liberal legend.


JEFF KENNETT: Michael Kroger has no job, he’s not a member of parliament, federal or state, and he ought to now seriously consider whether what he is on about is helpful to the whole or whether it’s just a personal pursuit of ego that he is pursuing.


MARK WILLACY: For his part, Michael Kroger has released a statement accusing the Victorian Premier of seriously damaging the party. The former state Liberal Party president wasn’t returning our calls today, but he’s received some support from outgoing federal Senator, Karen Synon. Senator Synon’s term is due to expire at midnight on Wednesday. It comes after she was dumped to an unwinnable position on the Liberal Senate ticket for last year’s federal election.


During the preselection process, Jeff Kennett personally appointed eight MPs to the voting panel instead of allowing them to be chosen by the party room. The result - Mr Kennett’s preferred candidate, Tsebin Tchen, was elected to the Senate. While Karen Synon this morning made it clear she would not comment on the Brighton preselection battle, she was prepared to publicly defend her long-time ally, Michael Kroger.


KAREN SYNON: Michael’s been involved in the Victorian division of the Liberal Party for well over 20 years. He was probably the most outstanding state president we’ve ever had, and is seen as a bit of an icon and an elder in the Liberal Party. People naturally go to him for advice.


MARK WILLACY: But Jeff Kennett’s making the point that he’s not a sitting member, he’s not actively involved in the party, he holds no formal position. Why should he be involved in a preselection for a state seat of Brighton?


KAREN SYNON: Well, in fact, Mr Kroger is a member of the policy assembly of the Victorian division, which is in fact the body which is invested with the power to sit on preselections.


MARK WILLACY: Jeff Kennett’s wrong in this case?


KAREN SYNON: Well, Michael Kroger is a member of the Liberal Party and as such has a stake and an interest in preselections, in so far as every member of the Liberal Party does, every lay member of the Liberal Party does.


MARK WILLACY: How influential is Mr Kroger within the Liberal Party, given that, as Jeff Kennett points out, he’s not a member of the parliamentary wing of the party?


KAREN SYNON: Well that in itself says how much influence in fact he does have. I rarely know of anyone who doesn’t go to Michael for advice at some stage of their political career. He’s sought out by many people on various different issues, not just party members but by the media fairly constantly, and naturally people seek him out.


MARK WILLACY: Is it disappointing that Mr Kroger and Mr Kennett can’t seem to work out their differences and get on with things for the good of the party?


KAREN SYNON: I think it’s very disappointing that Michael Kroger is being attacked in this way because he has done nothing but serve the party. He has done it in a selfless way. He’s not been employed to do it and he does it because people ask him to help them out.


JOHN HIGHFIELD: Senator Karen Synon with Mark Willacy in Melbourne.