08/03/2019 - 13:41

Liberal women jockey in Curtin

08/03/2019 - 13:41


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OPINION: The field of candidates to replace Julie Bishop in the seat of Curtin got crowded very quickly.

Liberal women jockey in Curtin
Celia Hammond has left Notre Dame and nominated for pre-selection for Curtin. Photo: Attila Csaszar

The contest to replace former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop as the endorsed Liberal Party of Australia candidate in the blue ribbon seat of Curtin has gained the sort of momentum the party had been seeking.

The decision of Celia Hammond to quit her $900,000-a-year post as vice-chancellor of The University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle and nominate for pre-selection has seen to that.

But it’s not only Professor Hammond.

Erin Watson-Lynn, whose area of expertise is foreign affairs, and Anna Dartnell from the resources sector are also in the running.

Whoever wins pre-selection will be up against independent candidate Louise Stewart, who has chaired Subcontractors WA.

It’s the sort of field the party had been hoping for once Ms Bishop’s decision to retire from politics had sunk in.

The pressure went on for the Liberals to endorse a quality female candidate in Curtin, especially after the decision of the selection committee in Stirling to opt for former soldier Vince Connelly ahead of four female rivals to replace retiring Liberal minister Michael Keenan.

Presumably the committee believed Mr Connolly to be the best candidate. But the Liberals have been vulnerable to criticism over the relative scarcity of female MPs within the ranks, especially compared with the Labor Party.

Labor has a much stronger female presence in the federal and state parliaments because of its affirmative action policy compared with the Liberals, who say they promote the ‘best candidates’.
But there are growing signs that Liberal women are becoming disenchanted with the approach, which gives Labor a free kick when it comes to displaying its own credentials.

One challenge women hopefuls have faced in seeking Liberal endorsement has been their appearance before the selection committee. All candidates must make their pitch before the committee, and also answer relevant questions.

The feedback has been that the women haven’t performed as well as some of the men, and tend to have been overlooked for that reason.

That is said to have happened in last year’s contest to replace former premier Colin Barnett in the safe state seat of Cottesloe.

Former state Liberal president David Honey emerged victorious ahead of several well-qualified female rivals because he was said to have performed impressively before the committee. In essence, his past experience within the party served him well, compared with his relatively inexperienced (in political terms) female opponents.

High-profile candidates don’t come along very often, which is why Professor Hammond’s decision has attracted such attention. A lawyer by profession, she had been due to step down from her university post at the end of the year after 11 years in the top job.

There’s furious lobbying for the prize endorsement. Four Liberal members – Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir Victor Garland, Allan Rocher and Ms Bishop – have held the seat for all but two years since it was first contested in 1949. The exception was in 1996 when Mr Rocher refused to give way for the newly endorsed Liberal candidate, businessman Ken Court, the third of Sir Charles Court’s five sons.

Mr Rocher had won initial endorsement in 1981 as a junior senator in a shock victory over then Fraser government minister Fred Chaney, who went on to become the party’s deputy leader. Mr Rocher contested Curtin against Mr Court as an independent and won, but he lost to Ms Bishop in 1998.

It’s understood Professor Hammond discussed the prospect of her candidacy late last year with former Howard government minister and now Notre Dame chancellor Chris Ellison. He raised it with powerbrokers Mathias Cormann and Peter Collier and she joined the Nedlands branch in November.

Professor Hammond’s election would give the Liberals a member with legal qualifications and expertise in higher education.

However, some of her rivals are also well credentialled. For instance Ms Watson-Lynn has a strong track record in foreign affairs and is currently head of programs at the USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia.

So the Liberal Party’s selection committee for Curtin will have a difficult task when it meets on March 10, ahead of a challenging federal election in May.

Its task will be to select the best candidate, who now seems certain to be a woman, but which one?


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