The Tenacious Mr Hawke


In the Liberal Party, the key participants in branch warfare often miss out when preselection rolls around.

It’s not hard to see why when you strip away the accoutrements of factional power, the average factional hack just isn’t much to look at. Nothing on the CV except a list of internal Party positions; nothing in the bank account, because hacks live off the public purse; and above all else there’s baggage: usually a manila folder’s worth of press clippings that has accumulated over the years, documenting the hack’s involvement in all sorts of disreputable activity.

The significance of the press clippings should not be misunderstood. They don’t influence the members of a preselection panel who get more angry that somebody has aired the Party’s dirty linen than they do about the linen itself; and nor do they stop the adherents of a faction from doing what they’re told. But a folder of clippings can cost one dearly with the power-brokers. The wisdom that ‘Steve Stack-a-lot is far too controversial to be our candidate and we should back somebody else’ has killed many preselection candidacies in the cradle, and often privileged the person who decided to align with a faction but steadfastly declined to become its chief bomb-thrower.

So there are obvious downsides to being the factional warrior in a preselection ballot. These handicaps are of decreasing severity as the power of factions grows, along with public knowledge (and, one must assume, indifference) to branch stacking, but it has remained true that preselection committees of the Liberal Party tend to choose a CEO or QC ahead of the parliamentary staffer or sundry factional hack particularly in blue ribbon seats.

How fascinating then to see the other week that the Mitchell FEC the bluest of the blue preselected Alex Hawke, the most factional of the factional. And by a margin of sixty-something votes. The temptation to find a deeper meaning is almost irresistible. If there is a deeper meaning.

And there isn’t really. In fact, from a certain point of view the outcome of the Mitchell preselection makes perfect sense.

The incumbent was Alan Cadman. From what one can tell, Cadman’s sole motivation for seeking another term was a quixotic desire to be around for as long as his parliamentary twin, John Howard.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Scant justification, one would have thought, for re-selection to one of the safest Liberal seats in the country and the more so given the number of talented and worthwhile parliamentary aspirants that Cadman has already blocked in the 33 years since he last had a proper job. Let’s be quite clear: Cadman’s tenure has been possibly the most embarrassing and self-indulgent of any person to sit in the House of Representatives, and it’s high time he was put out to pasture.

The two men  vying to be Cadman’s replacement were Alex Hawke and David Elliott. Hawke is a Right winger (a big one) and Elliott, also a Right winger (sort of). Both have spent time in the military something about which readers may draw their own conclusions. And both have very political CVs. Neither was the figurative ‘CEO or QC’ squaring off against an electorate office pygmy.

Elliott is a former member of Peter Collins’s personal staff, was campaign director for the Australians for Constitutional Monarchy during the Republican referendum, and has held various private sector positions (the common denominator of which seems to have been putting out press releases and telling the occasional journalist what to think). Alex Hawke has held staff positions with Senator Helen Coonan; Ross Cameron MP; and David Clarke MLC none of which, to be sure, is on quite the same level as Elliott’s ACM job, although Hawke has also been President of the NSW Young Liberals and National President of the Young Liberals.

In other words, there wasn’t much between them on paper, and the discriminating factor in the preselection was the work that each put into getting the numbers.

Hawke laboured for years, painstakingly stacking branches in the Mitchell FEC and building support for his preselection bid; Elliott popped his head over the parapet at the last moment, encouraged by promises of support from Liberal Party moderates and was given his head back a couple of weeks later with the thing closely resembling a colander.

Nothing unusual about that though it’s been the common experience of every person who has stood between Alex Hawke and something that he wanted. As the Sydney Morning Herald correctly observed of the new Liberal candidate for Mitchell, he has ‘a peculiar talent for winning elections.’

In truth, you would be hard pressed to find a more ruthless or cynical individual than Alex Hawke in any walk of life. And the determination that has propelled him through the ranks of the party to preselection for a safe Liberal seat at the age of only 29 is extraordinary. These qualities, ambiguous though they might be in many other contexts, hardly disqualify him from a useful role in Parliament.

Power, as Richard Nixon once said, is not for the nice guy down the street, or for the man next door. ‘It takes a particular kind of person to win the struggle for power, and having won the power itself creates a further difference’.

Neither Richard Nixon nor Alex Hawke is the kind of person you’d want at your Sunday barbeque, but both represent a far more obvious choice for public life than the David Elliott figure, who parachutes in at the last minute and expects a preselection committee to believe that he actually has the kind of commitment necessary for a long-term Parliamentary career. Indeed, the Liberal Party has learned to be wary of the person who suddenly realises that running for Parliament is what he or she ‘always wanted to do.’ A far better solution to mid-life crisis is to go buy a sports-car, or sleep with your secretary.

I’m glad to be able to mention Richard Nixon in connection with Alex Hawke, because a comparison can be quite validly made. I’ve known Alex Hawke for years (not always under the happiest of circumstances) and while he doesn’t exactly have Nixonian five o’clock shadow and jowls, there is a lot about him that doesn’t fit the profile of a successful democratic politician or a candidate for the Front Bench.

But he does have something. Just what it is exactly I think we’ll have to wait and see; but when you look at all the media coverage that Hawke has already received and I mean the coverage that isn’t connected to branch rorts and dodginess an inescapable conclusion is that other people believe it’s there too.

Hawke’s selection had a great deal to do with branch stacking and behind-the-scenes string-pulling, and this says a great deal about what is going wrong with the Liberal Party and Australian politics in general but the Mitchell ballot had the right outcome.

It also makes an interesting contrast with the Cook preselection, which is now entering its final days. Cook, a safe seat, is falling vacant due to the retirement of its incumbent, and the CEOs and QCs are out in force. That none of them had the wit or the willingness to take on a sitting member whose use-by date had expired that each of them preferred to join an undignified scrum in the Cook FEC can only underline the point. Suitability for elective politics has little to do with whether a person has taken silk, or featured in the Business R
eview Weekly

The sort of person you really want in politics is a politician.

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