Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien has seen off a clutch of enemies in the wake of an unsuccessful plot against him, but still faces internal challenges as he prepares to move onto a campaign footing and resurrect his political fortunes.
But former premier Jeff Kennett – who is mulling a tilt at the role of Victorian Liberal state president – says the party may still choose to replace Mr O’Brien if he does not turn the ship around.
Brad Battin speaking after Tuesday’s party room meeting.Credit:Justin McManus
Challenger Brad Battin – who insisted he was “not embarrassed” after his 22-9 defeat on Tuesday morning – quit shadow cabinet in the afternoon and a victorious Opposition Leader later accepted the resignations of Mr Battin’s key lieutenants.
As one MP put it: “It was utter humiliation for a group who don’t know what they’re doing.”
The Liberal leader has kept the top job thanks chiefly to MPs aligned to former leader Matthew Guy, some of whom have been Mr O’Brien’s biggest detractors but who worked hard to defeat the push. Many MPs believe Mr Guy wants to return as leader and did not want Mr Battin to be successful because it meant the challenger would probably be at the helm until the next election.
Mr O’Brien left the 20-minute party room meeting claiming he had won an “overwhelming endorsement” and signalled he would punish the MPs behind the push, who include Nick Wakeling and Ryan Smith, all of whom face pay cuts in excess of $10,000.
He indicated he would drop the rebels from the front bench, before all three saved him the trouble by resigning from their portfolios. A broader reshuffle of the shadow cabinet is expected in coming days.
“The party has very strongly resolved to keep the leadership in place,” Mr O’Brien said.
“We need to get our focus on Victorians … on rebuilding this state and saving us from this Labor government that’s quickly sending us broke and woke.”
Mr O’Brien called the moment a “line in the sand”, a phrase repeated by his little-known challenger who told reporters after his defeat he had a “very good resume” and would have run a “good, positive campaign” had he been elected.
Michael O’Brien arrives with his senior colleagues at State Parliament on Tuesday.Credit:Justin McManus
Refusing to rule out a further challenge, Mr Battin said: “We must respect the decision … to support Michael O’Brien,” arguing it was crucial that a spill be brought on in order to halt media speculation about party leadership.
“This is a line in the sand to get our position right,” he said.
Mr O’Brien, who admitted his leadership had not been “perfect”, is now set to launch his ailing party into campaign mode.
The Liberal leadership team will begin releasing policies at a more rapid pace and pursue more consistent attacks on the government, according to a source familiar with Mr O’Brien’s thinking, who spoke anonymously so as to discuss private planning.
The Opposition Leader’s strategists believe polls will tighten as voter focus shifts to the economic recovery and away from public health restrictions.
The state Liberals, according to the source, will focus on the Andrews government’s “chaotic” lockdowns that have caused economic pain and the billions of dollars worth of cost blowouts on major projects. The party will attempt to hammer home its message that Premier Daniel Andrews is giving a special deal to the Fox family, who he is close to, by potentially building a quarantine facility at the Fox-owned Avalon Airport.
Liberal MPs said Mr Andrews’ absence in Parliament on Tuesday, the first sitting day since his injury, had noticeably weakened the government and gave Mr O’Brien a chance to capitalise during the Labor leader’s six-week absence.
After the spill, several frontbenchers approached Mr O’Brien to encourage him to punish those who voted for the spill. Some threatened to resign if they had to serve alongside the MPs responsible for the challenge.
The failed push has not quelled speculation in the party that Mr Guy is priming for a challenge closer to the next election, but he has consistently denied this. Several MPs said the Guy camp, some of whom found out about Mr Battin’s push on Twitter, were hypocritical for blocking the challenge after months of undermining Mr O’Brien.
Matthew Guy arriving for Tuesday’s party-room meeting.Credit:Justin McManus
“Tim [Smith – planning spokesman and Guy supporter] and Matthew need to wake up to themselves,” said one anti-O’Brien MP. “They had a chance to create change here, which they’ve wanted for a long time, but they couldn’t see past their self-interest.”
One senior Liberal said a trigger for Mr Guy to challenge Mr O’Brien would be Mr Kennett’s potential election as Victorian Liberal state president. He is being urged to run by forces aligned with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Housing Minister Michael Sukkar.
The current party president, Robert Clark, is an ally of Mr O’Brien, as are the majority of members on the party’s pre-eminent decision-making body, the administrative committee.
“If Jeff gets in, the whole mood changes. Every man and his dog knows he wants O’Brien gone, and he won’t protect O’Brien’s deadwood MPs,” the senior Liberal said.
Mr Kennett told The Age he was not considering a presidential tilt for the purpose of installing a new state leader. He also set a test for Mr O’Brien’s leadership.
“After today’s dumb move, Michael has the support of the party and his future lies in his hands,” he said.
“If he can deliver over the next 12 months, then he’s likely to lead until the election. If he can’t make inroads, then the party might again look for an alternative.”
Former Hawthorn MP John Pesutto – who was being discussed as a replacement to Mr O’Brien if he had lost the spill motion and resigned from his seat of Malvern – urged unity and discipline among his former colleagues, who he said needed to rally around the leader.
“Discipline will be important and there’s no reason why, working together, we can’t succeed,” he said.
“We have to start focusing on offering the alternative vision that Victorians deserve. Everything we do needs to be geared towards that.”
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