Victorian Liberals: factional fight exposes deep divisions

 The most controversial figure in the Victorian Liberal Party, Marcus Bastiaan, had his audience enthralled as he thundered about the need for change.

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Radiating confidence, and with his past as a bellicose Brighton Grammar debater on display, Bastiaan told his Sydney listeners that the Liberals had been overrun by "lobbyists, political staffers or people who have worked in government the entirety of their careers".

As Tony Abbott watched at the October forum organised by figures from the Liberals' right wing, Bastiaan said the future of the party founded by Menzies lay in reconnecting with a base "let down by our party's failure to represent them".

Bastiaan fashions himself as the Liberals' new great hope, one of the few in party ranks capable of re-energising disenchanted members by thrusting the party further to the right. Bastiaan also wants to sweep out state MPs he regards as dead wood. The handsome, wilful 27-year-old has torn like a tornado through the Liberals' Victorian branch, aligning with figures such as Michael Kroger along the way.

As one senior supporter says: "The Liberal party at a state level is a gentlemen's club, Marcus is a brutal operator. Labor are cutthroat, so are the Greens. We need to get tougher; we have to sharpen our spears."

Not everyone is happy. Far from it.

Some senior Victorian Liberals say Bastiaan's campaign to push the party to the right is a Trojan horse. His ultimate mission, critics say, is building an empire while undermining Matthew Guy and Malcolm Turnbull.

More damaging are claims of unethical tactics. His enemies in the party – and there are many – point to allegedly rampant branch-stacking aimed solely at delivering long-term power and control to the Bastiaan group.

Fairfax Media can reveal that senior party figures are overseeing a confidential vetting committee into Bastiaan's alleged branch-stacking aimed at removing non-genuine members and curtailing his influence. There are also claims that Bastiaan is an ideological wind-sock, prepared to point whatever way the political winds blow.

On Saturday, his partner, ultra-conservative political aspirant Stephanie Ross, 25 - who believes that women who have been raped should be denied abortions - will challenge the oldest man in state parliament, 65-year-old Gary Blackwood, for the safe Warragul-based seat of Narracan. Blackwood won Narracan from Labor in 2006 and turned it into a safe seat.

If Ross gets up, it will be the second Bastiaan group figure to win, with James Newbury being pre-selected earlier this year in the seat of Brighton, held by outgoing MP Louise Asher.

Like her partner, Ross believes that too many state MPs are unskilled and out of date. Bastiaan's allies point to the fact that Labor has been in state government for all but four years since 1999, and the Baillieu-Napthine government lasted just one term.

Bastiaan's use of social conservatives to build his base have many scared about the damage to the Liberal brand in progressively minded Victoria, with concerns the Bastiaan group's insurgency is imperilling Guy's hopes of becoming the next premier.

"Their plan is for Guy to lose the next election and then take over. Guy is furious," says one senior Liberal.

The divisions are coming at a testing time for the party in Victoria.

In an unrelated development, a internal financial dispute has seen business community supremo and fundraising vehicle chairman Hugh Morgan withholding $500,000 from the state branch.

In an extraordinary letter to president Michael Kroger, Mr Morgan says the board of Cormack foundation has identified "fundamental gaps" in the branch's governance.

The governance dispute and the divisions sparked by Bastiaan are spot fires that insiders say risk destabilising the party at a time when the focus should be on exploiting Premier Daniel Andrews' bumpy start to the year.

"We should be focusing on Labor rather than obsessing about our own internal problems," says an MP.

Old dog, new pup

Twenty-five-year-old Ross hails from a conservative Catholic Church in West Gippsland and has made a name for herself campaigning against abortion.

As the preselection date has drawn closer, so has pressure on her to withdraw from those in the party because of the damage she is causing.

Critics highlight her lack of political, business or life experience. Like Bastiaan, she claims to be focused on returning the party to its members and challenging a parliamentary team that has abandoned its values and lost touch.

To her supporter base, which includes a group from the St Thomas Aquinas community, she has rallied against the Safe Schools program "that is teaching radical gender theory and warped graphic sex education centred around promiscuity".

She has warned Gippsland locals that Australia was "seeing the destruction of religious freedom, free speech, a push towards gay marriage (which won't stop there!) and euthanasia".

"There is a state/nation-wide push to bring conservative politics back into fashion! People like Corey [sic] Bernardi in SA, Andrew Hastie in WA, George Christensen in Qld and Kevin Andrews in Vic are all fighting and need our backing."

Last year, Ross hosted a gala fundraiser for conservative MP Kevin Andrews where the main attraction was former PM Tony Abbott. The Bulleen dinner featured a latin grace and a rendition of God Save the Queen.

She, like her partner Bastiaan, attack Guy's parliamentary team. Most recently, she lashed out at the Coalition's decision to support the Andrews' government ban on fracking and conventional gas exploration.

The Bastiaan camp is privately talking down Ross's chances, perhaps mindful that many senior Liberals are running a furious behind-the-scenes campaign to deny her the prize, fearing Bastiaan would use it as proof positive of his theory that the party's future lies in arresting the decline in membership by proselytising views that resonate with a disaffected base.

But the challenge has sparked fears in the party establishment, with Guy throwing his weight behind Blackwood, pledging a new Warragul hospital (an announcement that would normally be reserved for the election campaign). MPs are lobbying preselectors and the Hawthorn-based shadow Attorney-General John Pesutto will serve as Blackwood's scrutineer.

Bastiaan's ascension from just another wannabe glad-handing oldies at branch meetings to a figure of intense discussion and intrigue across the party has included a familiar rite of passage for many Victorian political aspirants – an alliance with veteran Liberal king-maker Michael Kroger.

A federal cabinet member told Fairfax Media that Kroger, who is still regarded as a "political animal of real substance" even by his enemies, believed Bastiaan (currently on the state's powerful administrative committee) would help entrench the veteran's power, not least due to Bastiaan's membership recruiting prowess.

If this is so, Kroger was only half right.

Bastiaan has excelled at recruiting members – which equate to votes during key party battles, including those that decide pre-selection – but appears not to be wedded to Kroger. Bastiaan is forging his own path, with a focus on seizing greater control at state council.

"It's like Frankenstein's monster. Kroger has lost control," says an observer.

Building an empire

A three-time university dropout, Bastiaan got into business with the aid of his father, dabbling in an antiques dealership while at university, before moving into a software design business.

He now spends his time leaping between an e-commerce start-up and politics.

His party operation is under close scrutiny. In the seats held by former treasurer Kim Wells and shadow frontbenchers Nick Wakeling and Heidi Victoria, a vetting committee has been formed to scrutinise the surge in memberships in Melbourne's east that began in the middle of last year but have recently tapered off.

A well-placed source says the committee has identified a small number of members who say they did not pay their party fees or sign the necessary forms. There are many more cases of new members who have no interest in the party beyond casting votes when needed. The vetting committee's work has led to several prospective members being blocked.

The powerful party administrative committee, of which Bastiaan is a member, is aware of branch-stacking claims but has not conducted a formal audit.

With just 12,500 members, many of them "ageing", Kroger has on several occasions publicly praised Bastiaan's work to recruit fresh blood, despite the allegations of branch stacking.

Another supporter, state party officer Paul Mitchell, says attacks on Bastiaan are factionally driven.

"Marcus has not just talked about the membership crisis in the Liberal Party, he has gone out and done something about it and the overwhelming majority of party members respect and admire that," he said.

Bastiaan appears to have built his base by making use of membership discounts provided to students and couples. Ultra-conservative churches have also provided a fertile recruiting ground.

"I've had people from different churches approach me and say I've had Marcus ask me to join up. I've got nothing against people who go to church, but this is a blatant stack," says a Liberal MP.

A legitimate recruiter aligned with Bastiaan is medical doctor Ivan Stratov, who once ran for the Family First Party.

A prominent member of the Mormon church, Stratov won't say how many new members he has recruited (there is no suggestion Stratov is doing any branch stacking) or how closely he is working with Bastiaan.

But Stratov says some of Victorian's Mormons "are getting politically aware" and he's encouraging them to sign up. This is being made easier, he says, because of anger over the safe schools program, the push to legalise assisted euthanasia and other progressive policies. For instance, Dr Stratov says there is plenty of support for his views on abortions.

"I wouldn't agree with the vast majority of abortions in this country. I think there are far too many," he says.

Supporters say concern about the growing influence of ultra-conservative church groups in the party is vastly overstated and serves as a means for underperforming MPs threatened by Bastiaan to create a sense of outrage and unease.

Others see the Bastiaan group's efforts as a genuine "insurgency" that is using conservatives as a rallying point.

Federal Assistant Treasurer and Deakin MP Michael Sukkar is another supporter of Bastiaan.

"The most important take out from the Deakin campaign was the importance of grassroots members and supporters. Modern campaigning is labour intensive and with ageing and shrinking membership many in the party are grateful of Marcus' efforts to grow the party," Mr Sukkar said.

"I don't seriously believe anybody can seriously argue that Christians can no longer be welcome in the Liberal party."

The Bastiaan group's emergence, championing of right-wing views and divisive nature reflects the battle playing out in federal party ranks, with Abbott and other conservative warriors keeping Turnbull on something of a leash.

Next month, Abbott is the headline guest at a Liberal Party fundraiser organised by Bastiaan. Few doubt Abbott's commitment to long-held conservative values.

But several Liberal MPs say Bastiaan's efforts to portray himself as a conservative warrior is more about political opportunism than any deeply held ideal.

Some Liberals also say that Bastiaan has privately backed same-sex marriage, a view he wasn't prepared to challenge when quizzed by Fairfax Media.

Blackwood, the group's preselection target, is himself a socially conservative MP and other arch-conservatives including the outspoken Bernie Finn are also in the Bastiaan camps sights.

The risk for Matthew Guy and the party in the long term is that while conservative views may energise some of the Liberal base and a new generation of members, they won't win an election in Victoria.

The Narracan preselection battle will be a test of Bastiaan's success in organising numbers.

Regardless of whether Stephanie Ross wins or loses, Bastiaan is expected to be appointed vice-president of the state branch in April, a key step to realising his ambition of becoming president.

The most considered political observers say Bastiaan is not the problem.

He's simply using unreconstructed right-wing rhetoric to try to fill a void created by mainstream parties struggling to connect with cynical voters. It's this disconnect that is at the heart of the Bastiaan phenomenon and, to a far greater extent, political movements overseas. Whatever Bastiaan's fortunes, the broader political problem is not going away.

"This is about the failure of mainstream parties to connect. It's not just us but Labor as well," says a senior party stalwart.

The story Victorian Liberals: factional fight exposes deep divisions first appeared on The Age.

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