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Vic Liberal Party infighting aired in public.

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Monday 12 May 2008

Vic Liberal Party infighting aired in public


MARK COLVIN: From chair sniffing in Western Australia to disarray in New South Wales, the Liberal Party around the country has given Labor a lot of free kicks since John Howard lost in November. And today in Victoria, the Liberals have scored another spectacular own goal.

It must have been bad enough for the State's Victorian leader, Ted Baillieu, to find out that a website white-anting him had actually been the work of disloyal Liberal staff members.

What's turned out worse has been the way his moves to root them out backfired. It's now emerged that Mr Baillieu's state campaign director sent an anti-Semitic email. Now the woman involved has apologised and resigned.

Some say the mess is symptomatic of broader factional in-fighting within the party. Other Liberal powerbrokers are privately calling Mr Baillieu paranoid, and claiming he blew the website affair out of all proportion.

A warning Jane Cowan's report contains offensive language.

JANE COWAN: The day started with the Victorian Liberal Leader on the war path, vowing to root out traitors within the party who'd posted a website called Ted Baillieu Must Go.

TED BAILLIEU: I'm not going to walk away from this fight.

JANE COWAN: He announced he'd sacked two of the staffers responsible and predicted more members of a deep seated cell bent on destroying the party would be found.

TED BAILLIEU: I am determined to make sure the party survives and survives and flourishes, based on the values it has.

JANE COWAN: But by mid morning it was clear he'd opened a can of worms, with one of the sacked workers leaking a damaging email in which Baillieu supporter and state campaign manager, Susan Chandler, made anti-Semitic comments to a candidate.

The Liberal leader was confronted with the email by Neil Mitchell on Fairfax Radio.

NEIL MITCHELL: Would you sack her if it's right?

TED BAILLIEU: Well I don't employ her, but I will refer that to the State President.

NEIL MITCHELL: You'd have a big say in it. If that's accurate should she be there?

TED BAILLIEU: Indeed. Totally inappropriate. Totally inappropriate.

NEIL MITCHELL: Should she be there if that's accurate?

TED BAILLIEU: No. No-one, no-one should be using that sort of language, disgraceful.

NEIL MITCHELL: Well what? Is it the anti-Semitism or the obscenity that worries you?


NEIL MITCHELL: Greedy f-ing Jew.

TED BAILLIEU: Anti-Semitism Neil is just totally unacceptable.

JANE COWAN: A few hours later, the Liberal Party State President David Kemp was forced to hold a press conference announcing the staffer's resignation.

DAVID KEMP: The staff member involved has admitted inappropriate activity and submitted her resignation, and she's also apologised to the party.

JANE COWAN: In a statement Susan Chandler says her comments were made on the spur of the moment at a difficult period during an election campaign, and were completely out of character.

JANE COWAN: But chances are the inappropriate comments would never have been uncovered if Ted Baillieu hadn't made a public show of sacking the two Liberal staffers responsible for a blogging website designed to undermine his leadership.

The vicious site depicted the Victorian Opposition Leader wearing a red clown nose and reportedly included posts describing among others Victorian Senator Judith Troeth as stupid, Federal Liberal MP Fran Bailey as a stupid fat bitch and the outspoken Federal backbencher, Petro Georgiou, as a waste of space.

NICK ECONOMOU: The sorts of things that are reported to have been said in this blog are really quite puerile. It might be the sort of things that people might in the old days have said to each other in the privately.

These days now with computer technology for reasons best known to themselves, this new generation of political operators like to put themselves on the net.

JANE COWAN: Political commentator, Nick Economou, says the blog might also be a symptom of long runn ing factional problems within the Victorian Liberal Party.

NICK ECONOMOU: There's clearly been a tension between moderates and what I call hardliners within the Victorian Liberal Party. There's also been clearly a big tension between the parliamentary wing and the organisation.

In Westminster systems, opposition parties usually don't have a great deal to do. One of the things they always do is turn it in on themselves. The Victorian Liberals have been in opposition for a long time and this is just another manifestation of an opposition party turning in on itself.

JANE COWAN: But he's not so sure the usual factional suspects are to blame this time.

NICK ECONOMOU: The people who are called the Kroger Costelloites; it's a reference to the time in which these people are coming into the Liberal Party.

People associated with that group have been in control of the party's organisation, they've been trying to win an increasing number of preselections but they've actually failed.

JANE COWAN: But it's Ted Baillieu himself who has fanned the impression that the party is in chaos. He's predicted the two sacked staffers are just the tip of the iceberg.

TED BAILLIEU: I believe there are other people involved. I'm not going to speculate.

JANE COWAN: Whoever's responsible, Ted Baillieu says he accepts the website was done without the without knowledge or approval of the retiring state director, Julian Sheezel, who's lining up for pre-selection for Peter Costello's plum seat of Higgins if he quits.

TED BAILLIEU: There is a smal l group who have some influence and they have a culture of recklessness and this sort of errant disgraceful behaviour.

JANE COWAN: The State President David Kemp acknowledges there are a few more people suspected of involvement in the website.

He says as far as he knows they're not MPs, and all of this has nothing to do with factional politics.

DAVID KEMP: I don't think it would be appropriate to see this necessarily as factional activity. Clearly these people had personal views and personal vendettas.

JANE COWAN: It will fall to the incoming State Liberal director and John Howard's former chief of staff, Tony Nutt, to sort out this mess when he formally takes over next week.

But one Liberal powerbroker has told PM that behind the scenes, many within the party are shaking their heads and privately wondering why Ted Baillieu has exposed the party to such negative scrutiny on the strength of a website the barely registered a ripple on the political landscape until now.

MARK COLVIN: Jane Cowan.