Howard-era veteran Kevin Andrews has been rolled in a Liberal preselection battle in Victoria despite having endorsements from party luminaries and the backing of number of senior ministers in the Morrison government.
Barrister Keith Wolahan, a former special forces captain, delivered the upset, winning Liberal preselection for the federal seat of Menzies comfortably on Sunday afternoon. According to party sources the vote was 181 votes to 111.
Andrews, a prominent party conservative, is a former defence, immigration and employment minister. He has served in federal parliament for 30 years.
Towards the end of last week, Wolahan backers in the Victorian Liberal party felt they had the numbers to unseat Andrews, but senior figures, including the health minister Greg Hunt, the education minister Alan Tudge, and conservative powerbroker and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar were campaigning for the incumbent.
One Liberal quipped shortly after Sunday’s upset: “Perhaps Greg Hunt should have spent the week on the phone to the European Union rather than hassling party members about their vote in Menzies” – which is a reference to emerging potential supply problems with Covid-19 vaccines.
Andrews had also been backed in the preselection battle by the treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Last week Frydenberg told the ABC Andrews had a “very strong track record” and had pitched a five-year plan to his constituents as part of his campaign to hold the seat.
Frydenberg said Wolahan was “respected as a lawyer, a soldier and as a party member” and members were entitled to challenge sitting members. But he acknowledged that he, along with Scott Morrison and John Howard, had “put pen to paper to support Kevin Andrews”.
Given his public backing of the incumbent, Frydenberg was asked last week whether he would be seen as weak institutionally if Sunday’s vote installed Wolahan rather than Andrews as the Menzies candidate. The treasurer is the most senior Victorian Liberal in the federal parliament. Frydenberg dead-batted: “They say that every time there’s a preselection”.
The resounding nature of Wolahan’s preselection victory does raise significant questions about the influence Victorian ministers are able to exercise over their home division, which has been riven by factional infighting and persistent claims of branch stacking.
Frydenberg – who attempts to maintain a foot in all camps when it comes to internal intrigues – attended Sunday’s preselection ballot. Sources in the room told Guardian Australia the treasurer told party members as the votes were counted whomever emerged the victor would be welcomed by the party room in Canberra.
After the upset, the treasurer thanked Andrews for his parliamentary service and declared: “The Liberal party in the seat of Menzies has started a new chapter.”
Wolahan, who has been a member of the party since his youth and is described by allies as a classic Victorian Liberal, campaigned for the Menzies preselection without high-powered endorsements, but with the support of party members both locally and in Canberra seeking generational change.
The preselection was originally scheduled for March but was delayed because of the pandemic.