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How Gerry Wheeler lost the ACT Senate pre-selection

By Norman Abjorensen - posted Monday, 23 December 2002

Former ACT Chief Minister Gary Humphries' decisive win in the Liberal Party pre-selection ballot to succeed the retiring Margaret Reid in one of the Territory's two Senate seats demonstrates the power of "local" in politics.

The intensive campaign, involving a final field of eight candidates, closely resembled a US-style primary contest because the Territory's Liberal Party constitution provides for an electoral college of the entire eligible membership. Pre-selectors were treated to a barrage of mailed letters and endorsements and, in the case of prime ministerial advisor Gerry Wheeler, a lavishly produced colour brochure as well as a video.

The theatricals aside, however, the process highlighted a number of themes. One was that in an electorate such as the ACT the description of a Liberal as "conservative" is electoral poison; second, that a concerted push by the party's right-wing hard men, tacitly supported by the PM himself, was staunchly resisted; and third, that the national news media, cossetted in the confines of Parliament House, know precious little about the politics outside.


Gerry Wheeler, formerly an adviser to right-wing MP Bronwyn Bishop and later a member of the Liberal secretariat credited with devising the 1996 election slogan "for all of us", was always a serious contender whenever Senator Reid decided to retire from the seat she has held for more than 20 years. His candidacy became known not so much for his profile in the party as for his assiduous recruiting of new members presumably loyal to him. This group, predominantly drawn from staffers employed by Liberal Senators and members, is now thought to comprise about 15 per cent of the party in the ACT. Wheeler, as a former Liberal student activist, also wooed and won a significant bloc of support from the right-wing Young Liberals in the ACT, who consider "conservative" an accolade.

Just as US Democrats and liberal Republicans had successfully highlighted the right-wing extremism of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election campaign, so had attention been drawn to Wheeler's hardline views. This was especially regarding youthful support for guns and criticism of Nelson Mandela but also his inclination towards market solutions for environmental problems and the belief, in a town with four universities, that government funding for postgraduate education represented "middle-class welfare".

Wheeler simply did not see the train coming, and even as he showered party members with happy snaps of wife and family and video interviews pointing to his "normal" upbringing, he went on ABC radio with the other hopefuls less than a week out from the ballot proclaiming that he was a conservative.

The Howard people gave the attempted takeover of the ACT Liberal Party all they had, beginning by edging out the respected and liked Margaret Reid from the Senate presidency, presumably because she was seen as too accommodating of non-Government Senators in the chamber where the Coalition has a minority.

Wheeler's recruiting activities clearly had wide support, and when the endorsements began to flow it was clear who was in on his campaign. Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin were very much to the fore with recently retired Liberal Party federal director Lynton Crosby working hard behind the scenes. Not exactly in the background was the Prime Minister himself, who had a starring role in the Wheeler campaign material.

By the time the national media began to take serious interest, its inspiration came from the corridors of Parliament House and presumably the Wheeler camp, portraying the contest as one essentially between Wheeler and former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell. If that was the case then neither candidate really understood the ACT Liberal Party.


Carnell, who was forced to resign in 2000 after a series of financial irregularities in the upgrade of Bruce Stadium, was always going to struggle for numbers in a party that remained highly ambivalent towards her, mainly over personal style, despite her election wins in 1995 and 1998.

Consistently overlooked in the lead-up was Gary Humphries, who succeeded Carnell as Chief Minister and had been elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly five times since self-government in 1989.

Humphries, low key and quietly spoken, is very much a product of the ACT Liberal Party, socially conservative on some issues (he is pro-life) and mildly progressive on others. As a minister he found himself at times well to the Left of the Commonwealth Liberals, notably on Internet regulation and censorship. He is a former ACT Liberal Party president, widely known and respected in both the party and the wider community, and has made no secret over the years of his ambition to succeed Senator Reid.

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About the Author

Dr Norman Abjorensen, a Visiting Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the ANU, is author of Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy, published next month by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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