Guy plays down talk of crisis, as five MPs face internal challenges

Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has denied his party is in crisis despite five MPs, including two members of his shadow cabinet, facing preselection challenges in an assault orchestrated by his enemies in the party.

Several state MPs fear the emergence of challengers aligned to party powerbroker Michael Kroger, an ally to former shadow attorney-general Tim Smith, will reopen deep factional wounds little more than a year before Victorians go to the polls.

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy on Friday.Credit:Eddie Jim

Mr Smith, the MP for Kew, will step aside at the next state election after bowing to pressure from Mr Guy following his drunken crash into a house in Hawthorn.

Asked on Friday whether he believed Mr Smith was orchestrating the preselection battles – after the pair, previously close allies, fell out – Mr Guy said “no” and dismissed suggestions the turbulence would undermine his party’s ability to prosecute the Andrews government.

“Why would party democracy be a bad thing? Challenges are not new,” he said.

In a departure from long-standing party conventions, former leader Michael O’Brien, frontbenchers Brad Battin and James Newbury, and veteran MPs Neil Angus and David Morris will all face internal fights to retain their seats in an unwanted disruption to the Coalition’s election preparations which one senior frontbencher described as “purely f—ing factional”.

Mr Angus is ineligible to attend Parliament after defying the COVID-19 vaccination mandate, Liberal sources confirmed last month.

A factional battle is also brewing in the seat of Hastings where conservative forces will back a fresh candidate to replace outgoing MP Neale Burgess.

Several federal MPs, speaking to The Age on the condition of anonymity, said the preselection fights represented a “deep frustration from grassroots members” who were unhappy with the opposition’s performance over the past two years.

But state MPs believe the challenges to sitting MPs, which are extremely rare, highlight both the bitter factional divide in the party and the tinderbox environment following Mr Guy’s dumping of his close friend Mr Smith.

City of Stonnington Councillor Alexander Lew.

Several of the challengers – including councillor Alexander Lew against Mr O’Brien, and Nick McGowan who is running against Mr Angus – are part of the faction aligned with Mr Smith, Mr Kroger, and federal MPs Josh Frydenberg and Michael Sukkar.

“Alex has been put up to it by Kroger,” one senior Liberal said.

Another Liberal frontbencher said the preselection battles would be a “major distraction” to the opposition before the state election.

“None of these people will be holding Labor to account, they’ll be fighting preselection battles,” the MP said. “There’s plenty of people in the upper house to challenge, why do this?”

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg with party powerbroker Michael Kroger.Credit:Jason South

Nominations for Liberal-held seats closed at noon on Friday with the party’s head office vowing to contact all MPs by Friday night to inform them whether they would face a challenge.

As well as the challenges to the five sitting MPs, The Age has confirmed that two additional seats where MPs are retiring – Kew and Hastings – will see multiple contenders fight for the seats, among just 21 lower house positions held by the Liberal Party.

Upper house nominations do not open until next year with several MPs predicting the fighting will continue into 2022 with warring factions expected to put forward opponents in the South Eastern Metropolitan Region and Western Metropolitan Region, where right-winger Bernie Finn will be challenged.

Mr Guy has been keen to generate renewal in his parliamentary ranks but several of the party’s longest-serving MPs, who have faced calls to leave Parliament to make way for fresh talent, have decided to contest the next poll.

When Matthew Guy retook the Liberal Party leadership in September, Tim Smith was right behind him. Credit:Justin McManus

Shadow treasurer David Davis, who sits in the upper house and was first elected in 1996, has submitted his preselection forms for the seat of Kew, angering some senior Liberals who believe he is moving to the lower house to angle for the party leadership if Mr Guy loses the election.

Mr Guy rejected criticism of Mr Davis, who some Liberals believe may block the path of a young female candidate, such as staffer Jess Wilson, into Parliament.

“I’ll talk to David [but] I’m not going to involve myself in party preselection. That’s a decision for members,” he said.

“Not every preselection, do we think should be [won] by women. We want a lot, maybe the majority, but not every one. [We’ve] got to have diversity both ways, and that’s what we’ll be seeking.”

David Davies is opposition leader in the upper house.Credit:Justin McManus

Liberal MPs were also speculating that Mr Davis may have sought support from Mr Smith by promising him help in the future should the 38-year-old wish to return to politics after vacating his seat.

On Friday, a second challenger to Mr O’Brien emerged, with lawyer and Malvern resident Virginia Wallace putting her hand up to challenge the former leader.

Ms Wallace is a director of Tennis Victoria, board member of two water catchment authorities, former chief of staff to a federal minister and a former employee of NAB, AMP and BHP. She is being backed by former minister Amanda Vanstone. Earlier this week she was considering running in Kew.

Long-serving Mornington MP David Morris will be challenged by former federal MP Chris Crewther who lost the Frankston-based seat of Dunkley at the 2019 election.

The opposition’s police spokesman Brad Battin, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr O’Brien for the leadership in March, will be challenged by party member Michael Keen and Forest Hill MP Neil Angus will face a fight from former candidate Nick McGowan, who was best man at Mr Guy’s wedding.

The seat of Hastings will also be thrown open after Neale Burgess confirmed he would exit Parliament at the next election.

Former Mornington Peninsula councillor Julie Morris, a senior police constable who in 2019 saved a teenager from rough surf off Frankston Pier, has put her hand up for the seat.

She will face a challenge from Briony Hutton, an executive officer for the Committee for Mornington Peninsula who is believed to be backed by conservative forces linked to Mr Kroger and Mr Sukkar.

The Liberal Party will avoid a messy preselection battle in the Gippsland seat of Narracan where Gary Blackwood has announced he will not be contesting next year’s state election. Warragul builder Wayne Farnham is believed to be the only contender for the safe seat.

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