If Tim Smith needed a reminder about the unforgiving nature of politics, he got one on Friday night when he answered a call from an unsolicited number.
The call was from a polling company and the automated woman’s voice on the other end wanted to ask a series of questions about the seat of Kew.
His seat of Kew.
Liberal MP Tim Smith and the Jaguar he crashed while drunk into a Hawthorn house.
What is your opinion of Tim Smith, she asked him. Did he think that Tim Smith, his local MP who had a car accident the previous weekend while driving under the influence, should recontest his seat or retire from politics? Would Tim Smith’s performance and recent car accident make him more or less likely to vote for the Liberals at the next state election?
Smith didn’t need to wait around for the poll results. He knew before he answered his phone his career was at an end. His best friend in politics had seen to it.
The Victorian Liberal Party remains deeply divided about whether he should have been forced our of parliament, and whether Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, by putting propriety above loyalty, has emerged stronger or weaker from it.
“From a federal perspective, it was inconceivable that Matt would cut Tim loose.”
Since the early months of the Howard government, when a prime minister newly elected on a promise to hold his executive team to a higher level of accountability lost seven ministers to various misdeeds, it has become an article of political faith among Liberals at the federal level that they must protect their own in the face of scandal.
This determination imprinted deeply in the federal government’s psyche helps explain the survival of Gladys Liu despite her alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party, Michael Sukkar against allegations of branch stacking or Christian Porter in the face of historic rape allegations. All three have denied wrongdoing.
When news first broke that Smith had crashed his car into a fence whilst drunk, his federal colleagues assumed that Smith’s career would take a hit, but ultimately, Guy would stick by his friend and staunch political ally.
Smith clearly thought this too. Although Smith has refused to divulge what Guy told him when he visited two days after the crash, he evidently believed that, so long as he kept his mouth shut and his nose clean and served his penance on the backbench, he still had a political future.
Michael Sukkar: protected by a Federal Liberal code of loyalty.Credit:
When Guy instead declared, a few hours before the running of the Melbourne Cup, that there would be no place for Smith in any government he led and Smith should not seek preselection in Kew, it shocked both Smith and the federal MPs who’d encouraged him to stick it out.
“Their first assumption was that Matt would stick with this bloke through thick and thin,” a party insider said. “It was largely people who didn’t vote for Matt who were calling for Tim’s head. From a federal perspective, it was inconceivable that Matt would cut Tim loose.”
The reaction among state Liberals was different. When Guy met his leadership team to discuss Smith’s future, they agreed it was more important for Guy to uphold standards in public office than demonstrate loyalty to one of his most prominent backers.
The only question for Guy was how best to manage Smith’s exit.
It wasn’t just state MPs who held this view. The Age has been told that former premier Jeff Kennett was among the senior party figures who lobbied Guy to make an example of Smith and create a clear differentiation between the Liberals in Victoria and a Labor government currently the subject of a corruption probe.
Mr Kennett did not confirm or deny the intervention.
Guy also sought the counsel of Mitchell Catlin, his chief of staff. Catlin is a marketing expert who has spent more of his career promoting commercial rather than political interests.
If seen through a commercial lens, the Smith imbroglio is a no-brainer; why would Guy or any political leader hang on to someone, even an ally and friend, who would damage his brand in the lead up to an election?
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy.Credit:Eddie Jim
As one state MP explained it: “This is about us trying to be an alternative government to a very bad government. Look at what is happening at IBAC. Look at everything that has gone on.”
The state Liberals’ political calculation here is that whatever the party loses in Smith, it will gain far more for taking a hard decision on a matter of principle. It has not always worked out this way.
The last time the Liberals were in government in Victoria, former Premier Ted Baillieu took a principled stance against Geoff Shaw, an MP facing a litany of scandals in a government with a parliamentary majority of one. In doing so, he set in motion events that eventually devoured his leadership.
The day Shaw quit the party was the same day Baillieu resigned as premier.
Ted Baillieu and Geoff Shaw.Credit:
Guy’s supporters believe his handling of Smith’s demise is a significant win. By Thursday, when Guy refused to budge on his previous demands that Smith abandon Kew, some of the same federal MPs who initially expected Smith to hang on were publicly encouraging him to listen to his leader.
Even some of Smith’s local backers in Kew could not see how he could stand if the party leader didn’t want him.
The alternative view is that Guy, by appeasing his internal enemies and abandoning his closest friend in parliament, has done nothing to engender loyalty, a quality in short supply in state Liberal politics.
The federal Liberals, for all their malleable standards, have been in government for 19 of the past 25 years, while the state Liberals have served in opposition for 18 of the past 22. One frustrated supporter of Smith put it: “The honest answer is the feds are tough and the state guys are as weak as dishwater.”
In the electorate of Kew, much of the institutional support for Smith has now swung in behind Jess Wilson, a former Young Liberals president and adviser to Josh Frydenberg.
The results of the RedBridge Group poll conducted in Kew, although largely academic now, indicate that the Liberals are a strong chance to hold the seat. Despite the intense focus on Smith’s drink-driving in the five days leading up to the poll, the Liberal vote hadn’t collapsed, the Labor vote was unchanged and the Greens vote had slipped since 2018.
Two out of three Liberal votes said Smith’s drink-driving episode would make no difference to how they voted. Bizarrely, nearly a quarter of them said it would increase the likelihood they’d vote for Smith.
The full picture may emerge sooner rather than later if Smith resigns from parliament and forces a by-election. So far, he has given no guarantee that he will serve out the full 12 months of his remaining term.
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