It was probably too much to ask of our MLAs to keep the federal election out of the Legislative Assembly this week, but the Canberra Liberals’ attempts to both wedge the Barr Government and fly the flag for what most agree now is the embattled Senator Zed Seselja carries risks for Leader Elizabeth Lee.
No less than three motions from the Liberals related in some way to Senator Seselja’s campaign and federal issues: Labor’s plans for the APS, the Greens’ position on defence and releasing land west of the Murrumbidgee in Tuggeranong for housing.
The energy – and taxpayers’ money – the Senator is throwing at the campaign points to him being in the fight of his life to retain his Senate seat in the face of a three-pronged attack from the Greens’ Tjanara Goreng Goreng, and Independents David Pocock and Kim Rubenstein.
The odds are he will still scrape home, but there appears to be momentum building for change, with the Independents, who are wooing disgruntled Liberals, performing well in this week’s Region Senate debate.
Seselja is not leaving much to chance.
It is hard not to believe that the party power broker deployed his MLA footsoldiers in the Assembly to deliver some key messages about how Labor’s plan to rebalance the public service by cutting back on contractors and consultancies would damage the ACT economy, the federal Greens’ reckless defence policy, and his pet project, housing across the Murrumbidgee.
The Canberra Liberals were immediately labelled “Zed’s puppets” in what for Labor frontbencher Mick Gentleman was a stirring call to arms, and accused them of – shock, horror – playing politics.
They recited the Senator’s talking points about the public service and contractors, even to the point of misrepresenting Labor’s numbers and leaving themselves wide open to an attack about Coalition cuts and the gutting of APS capability.
They probably achieved their aims of splitting the usually conjoined Labor and the Greens on the defence issue – hardly a Territory matter.
But they flogged a dead horse with the housing motion, which was immediately amended to one supporting the current housing policies.
Land release for housing is a live issue in the ACT, but there are plenty of other lines of attack than running with Senator Seselja’s constant refrain of ‘across the Murrumbidgee’, an environmentally sensitive area with challenging terrain for development.
Ms Lee missed some of the antics by taking a spot of sick leave, but the blatant electioneering on Senator Seselja’s behalf reflects badly on the party and her as leader.
Since the disastrous 2020 election, she has worked assiduously to reposition the Liberals to the centre, away from the extreme stances that were alienating many conservative voters and business supporters.
Part of that process has been distancing the local party from Senator Seselja and reducing his sway over Liberal branches.
It was working, and the Canberra Liberals had appeared to be breaking through on key issues with renewed credibility, vitality and unity.
But this year the party seemed to lapse, with its MLAs less free to speak their minds, old wars renewed and complaints that the media was against them.
Senator Seselja, for his part, seemed to want to pick a fight with Chief Minister Andrew Barr as part of a strategy to link him to the federal campaign. It also made him sound like the de facto Liberal leader in the ACT.
Mr Barr refuses to engage, pointing out that he is not running for office.
Where this all leaves Ms Lee is anybody’s guess.
While helping out a ‘comrade’ in an election is admirable, tying up precious Assembly hours and the party returning to an orbit around the Senator will only rebound on her leadership and hurt the Liberals’ chances in 2024.
Observers may reasonably deduce that the divisions in the party have only been papered over and it is adrift, again.
Ms Lee needs to reassert her leadership, restart the process she began in 2020 and reset her team.