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Victoria: joint Senate deal between the Liberal Party and National Party looking shaky

CHRIS CLARKE: The joint Senate ticket deal in Victoria thrashed out last week between the Liberals and Nationals is looking increasingly shaky with rank and file Nationals in Victoria threatening to overturn the agreement. Under the deal, the Liberals will retain three Senators in Victoria at the next election at the expense of the National's Julian McGauran. But, in return, the young Senator is guaranteed a winnable position at the two subsequent elections.

Despite having the support of the Nationals management committee, National Party branches in Victoria are balking at the idea, which Opposition Leader John Howard has worked hard for them to accept. The Deputy Leader of the Nationals in Canberra, Bruce Lloyd, has urged all Nationals to support the deal, including Senator McGauran. Nevertheless, Mr Lloyd told Kate Wall he could understand the feeling in the Victorian branch.

BRUCE LLOYD: Partly because they don't know the details of the proposal and how good it is from the Party's point of view on securing a future for Senator McGauran, and partly because we've been through attempts at agreements with the Liberal Party in previous years and they haven't been successful and, in frustration, the Party then determined to run its own Senate ticket. And we have had a success, although a very close one, in the last Senate election, and now the Party's being presented with a proposal that would be a return to a joint Senate ticket. So I fully understand that concern. I believe that concern will dissipate as the details are explained, because it is, in my 20 years of active involvement in the management of the Party, the most accountable, the most secure arrangement that we have been offered.

KATE WALL: There is a lot hanging on this deal, isn't there, in terms of the coalition's perception at the next election, John Howard as leader of the coalition?

BRUCE LLOYD: Yes, that has developed, and I think that's another factor that perhaps people at the branch level don't fully appreciate. And it is important, and to me the first part of that importance is, first and foremost, the Party in Victoria and Senator McGauran's own future in Victoria, where a secure position, number two position next time around, or number two in a double dissolution makes it completely safe for him. And at his age he has a great future in front of him. But if we run by ourselves, the chance of success must be less than 50 per cent, particularly the way the media is now running it as a test of coalition unity, and of course of winning government it's a test as well, and therefore more and more I believe the argument, or the argument for accepting the proposal is increasing.

KATE WALL: That sounds very simple, the way you've explained it. Why do you think it is that the rank and file in Victoria seems to be having trouble grasping this fact that Julian McGauran will be safe after the next election?

BRUCE LLOYD: Well, partly because the reporting has not been complete - and that is, perhaps, a fault of people like myself - and partly because we have only reached the first stage. And remember management committee at its meeting last Friday, as required by our Party, very strongly recommended the acceptance. But that was only the first stage. The central council, this Friday, is the second stage, and therefore many members who perhaps still haven't got the full details will have them.

And one of the big differences between the proposal this time and in the past - and I'm going back here to the great days of Menzies and McEwen - was that they were only gentlemen's agreements, they were never written, they were never signed, they were never public, they were never accountable. And this one is. It's one in which, is unbreakable, and that is of great importance to the trust of the National Party. And perhaps people just haven't thought through the precarious nature of running by ourselves on this occasion versus the security of number two every second time around.

KATE WALL: Would you hope that Julian McGauran becomes involved in trying to sell this deal in the run-up to this meeting on Friday, which is obviously fairly crucial to the deal's future?

BRUCE LLOYD: Julian is in a very difficult position because it is a Party decision as well as a personal decision. And, in a way, I suppose it's the Party that should be deciding what is best for the Party. But it is also deciding the best for Julian.

And as, I believe, the acceptance of the proposal is the best for Julian, if Julian can also see it that way, it would be very, very helpful for him to publicly support it because it would put to rest the natural concern of many branch members that the proposal is not the best thing for the Party and not the best thing for Julian, and not the best way of encouraging and assisting victory for the coalition parties in the next election.

CHRIS CLARKE: Bruce Lloyd, who's Deputy Leader of the Nationals in Canberra. He was speaking to Kate Wall. Mr Lloyd might have to do some fast talking if he's going to convince Brian Handley, the President of the Narracan District Council of the National Party in Gippsland to accept the deal. Mr Handley told Jim Gale the joint ticket deal was far from a fait accompli.

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, we're not satisfied it has been stitched up. That's something for the State Conference of the National Party to determine.

JIM GALE: So it could be overruled?

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, it's not for me to speculate on that. It's up to the rank and file to make a judgment about the merit of the arrangement.

JIM GALE: Well, what's wrong with the arrangement?

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, from our point of view it's, we're losing a very able Senator of a very high calibre, and there's no guarantee that Senator McGauran would come back again.

JIM GALE: You're only losing him in the short term. The arrangement is that he'll have a safe position on a joint ticket next time round, so it is really only for quite a short time that he's out.

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, that's open to conjecture. We feel that any Senator that suffers the indignity and humiliation of being dumped, in fact may not come back again.

JIM GALE: What, you think he might quit as a result of this?

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, of course three years is quite a long time. Senator McGauran would have to do something within that time. He may head off in quite a different direction in life and may not, circumstances may change to the point that he may not seek preselection again.

JIM GALE: Have you spoken at all to Senator McGauran along these lines?

BRIAN HANDLEY: Yes. I've expressed that view to him. It's certainly the consensus of opinion down here that its, we just can't accept that it is in the interests of the coalition in the short term or the long term.

JIM GALE: What did Senator McGauran say when you put to him that you were concerned that he may not be around in three years time?

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, he obviously had to agree that one doesn't have a crystal ball and there's no guarantees in life.

JIM GALE: So he said that's a real possibility?

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, he's certainly very keen to remain in politics, and in no way is he holding that out as some sort of threat. He just accepts the reality of life that circumstances change, and that could be a possibility.

JIM GALE: Of course, federally a lot more is riding on this than just Julian McGauran's future. The leadership of John Howard has become, this has become crucial to his leadership, the view of the electorate that the coalition is unified. These sorts of things from Canberra's point of view are perhaps much bigger than Julian McGauran's future.

BRIAN HANDLEY: Well, it doesn't really come down to the future of one Senator. I think the ramifications of this arrangement are far wider. I don't think enough thought has been given to the political fallout from this decision. For instance, the effect on the morale of the rank and file would be quite negative. We could find an unwinding process at the grassroots level. I don't think it's in the interests of either party to see an unwinding or a weakening at the grassroots level. We need to maintain a strong organisational base to underpin our political objectives.

CHRIS CLARKE: Brian Handley who's the President of the Narracan District Council of the National Party in Gippsland in Victoria. He was talking to Jim Gale.