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Macphee, Shipton and Beale face the Liberal preselection ordeal

TRISHA GODDARD: Is it the soul of the Liberal Party that's on the line this weekend in the Victorian Federal preselection contests, or simply the political futures of three sitting members, including the controversial Ian Macphee. Either way, it's likely to be a weekend that'll echo through conservative politics for many years to come. From Canberra, here's Paul Lyneham.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Social anthropologists who study so-called primitive societies, claim you can learn a lot about a tribe by examining the rituals that mark special occasions. If that's true, then they'd had a field day in Melbourne tomorrow afternoon when Ian Macphee faces the three-hour ritual of ordeal by political cabaret. It will begin at 2 p.m. when the rival candidates, and there wives, will face at three round tables an audience comprising about 60 per cent local branch delegates and 40 per cent delegates chosen at random from the Liberals' Policy Assembly. Each rival couple will spend about 20 minutes at each table, meeting the delegates and talking informally, rather like a mix of a dry dinner party and the Spanish Inquisition.

Then after 20 minutes for tea and scones, the real entertainment begins. With a toss of a coin deciding the running order, each delegate makes a speech for 15 minutes and answers questions for 10, while his rivals wait outside. After that, the ballot, secret and exhaustive, until one man emerges as the endorsed Liberal candidate for Goldstein at the next federal election. A similar ritual is under way at this very moment, with Roger Shipton trying to hold the seat of Higgins, and there will be another on Sunday, when Ken Aldred tries to fight off Julian Beale who wants his seat of Bruce.

But of course, it's the battle for Goldstein, between Macphee and Kemp, that's the five-star attraction. Ian Macphee, the widely respected small `l' Liberal seen by some as the conscience of the party, and by others as a wet, whingeing whimp, fighting for his political life against the bone-dry, right-wing intellectual heavyweight, Professor David Kemp, and the entire battle, waged with the party's Federal leader remaining as firmly as possible on the sidelines.

JOHN HOWARD: I say, again, that the preselectors in Goldstein will make a decision according to their assessment as what is in the best interests of the Liberal Party, and I will naturally, as parliamentary leader, support the person chosen by that Committee to be the Liberal Party candidate.

PAUL LYNEHAM: In the background, a last minute Liberal decision to re-open Senate nominations in Victoria, a political parachute that the embattled Mr Macphee rejects, as he must, for the moment at least.

And a last minute show of support for Mr Macphee as about 100 Australians, including prominent figures outside the party like historian Manning Clark, sign an open letter published in the Melbourne `Age', a letter addressed to the preselectors and describing Ian Macphee as a tireless advocate for sense, tolerance and fairness on our most important national issues. Another signatory is former Liberal Prime Minister, Sir John Gorton, who spoke with my ABC news colleague, Jim Middleton, in Canberra today.

JOHN GORTON: Today, there seems to me to be a hardening of attitudes against anybody who opposes the mainstream of the Liberal leader's thoughts.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you think that John Howard should have intervened to help Mr Macphee in this preselection fight?

JOHN GORTON: Yes, I do. He could have rung up the President of the Liberal Party in Victoria and said: Look, here, I believe there is going to be movement against Macphee. I'd like them not to be too hard unless you've got very good reasons.

JIM MIDDLETON: I take it that, as leader of the Liberal Party, if you'd been confronted with a similar situation you would have acted in that way?

JOHN GORTON: Well, I would have acted in that way. That's not to say it's right, but I would have acted in that way.

JIM MIDDLETON: But Mr Howard says that to have intervened in any specific way in Mr Macphee's favour would have been to interfere in the democratic processes of the Victorian Branch of the Liberal Party.

JOHN GORTON: If you follow that through, it means that once you are the leader of the Liberal Party here, you can't express an opinion about anybody who is standing for a preselection, you cut yourself off from democratically expressing your vote.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you think that, as Mr Macphee has claimed, that the Victorian Branch of the Liberal Party has become the captive of what is called the new right?

JOHN GORTON: I think the whole Liberal Party is moving towards the new right.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Ian Macphee, how do you feel tonight, anxious?

IAN MACPHEE: No, I feel very relaxed, Paul, in spite of the turbulent three weeks.

PAUL LYNEHAM: The prevailing wisdom, of course, is that you are going to lose tomorrow.

IAN MACPHEE: That seems to have been the prevailing wisdom all the time, but I don't share it and, in fact, I haven't shared that view for two weeks.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Why not?

IAN MACPHEE: Because I am confident, after talking to most of the delegates, that they understand the political wisdom of staying with somebody who is a winner.

PAUL LYNEHAM: You've been on the phone today, have you?

IAN MACPHEE: Well, today and several days before.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Do you believe that when you go in there tomorrow you'll be having the decks still stacked against you?

IAN MACPHEE: I think that the playing ground is much, much more even as a result of consideration of statements I've made to head office and I am now satisfied that what will come out tomorrow will be a fair, sensible judgement in all the circumstances.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Now, I know politicians never like to contemplate the prospect of losing, but what happens if you do?

IAN MACPHEE: Well, I'll have to make a very considered judgement. You know very well there will be many options open to me. I don't intend to ....

PAUL LYNEHAM: Is the Senate an option?

IAN MACPHEE: The Senate is not an option, nor is joining the Democrats an option, but there are ....

PAUL LYNEHAM: What about being an independent?

IAN MACPHEE: There are other options which I would consider in the dry light of day if I have to, but I'm not contemplating having to do that.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And if you lose, do you stay in that seat right up to the next election, you don't bail out straight away?

IAN MACPHEE: My objective would be to go on serving the electors for the time being, but I am entitled to look at other options which might, of course, include entering the private sector again. But that's something that I haven't contemplated. My whole objective has been to get Liberal Party endorsement tomorrow, and I do believe that I will actually do that.

PAUL LYNEHAM: You really believe, in your heart, you'll win?

IAN MACPHEE: Yes, I do, and I've believed that for two weeks.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And what happens if you do - a celebration tomorrow night?

IAN MACPHEE: I've actually got to go to a wedding immediately afterwards, and it's the wedding of my electorate committee's secretary who has been one of my loyal supporters for the last 15 years, and as soon as the preselection is over, I guess I'll say hello to you and then go to the wedding.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Well, I suppose if you do win, you could be excused for having one or two extra glasses of champagne.

IAN MACPHEE: I suppose I might, too, Paul.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Thanks very much for your time.

IAN MACPHEE: Thank you.

TRISHA GODDARD: Ian Macphee with Paul Lyneham in Canberra.