How the Vic right stole the Lib­eral Party

While the fight for the Lib­eral Party plays out in its state branches, Michael Kroger’s far right has cap­tured Vic­to­ria and is bed­ding down for Napoleonic pre­s­e­lec­tions.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray.

Un­til re­cently, when the ma­jor­ity of his Napoleonic col­lec­tion was sold at a French auc­tion, there was a spe­cial place re­served in Michael Kroger’s home for a paint­ing of the Em­peror of France. Made by an un­der­study of De­laroche – one of only seven orig­i­nal copies, the mas­ter hav­ing been ac­quired by Queen Vic­to­ria – it de­picts a slumped and sour Napoleon on the day of his for­mal ca­pit­u­la­tion at the Treaty of Fon­tainebleau. In a 2009 in­ter­view, Kroger said the paint­ing was a “warn­ing of when hubris takes over”.

Kroger makes scant ref­er­ence to the con­se­quences of that hubris, as if the worst dam­age of Napoleon’s march on Moscow was to his rep­u­ta­tion. As it is, the epic and avoid­able car­nage is ex­haus­tively doc­u­mented and it’s tempt­ing to fer­ret out po­lit­i­cal anal­ogy. The im­pe­ri­ous but oddly in­de­ci­sive Napoleon amassed his­tory’s largest army on the Rus­sian bor­der to co­erce Alexan­der’s con­ces­sions. With Rus­sia’s pride of­fended, Alexan­der’s forces thwarted the Grande Ar­mée by burn­ing its own vil­lages and crops in re­treat, trust­ing the lethal­ity of its win­ter. Over the white and freez­ing ex­panses, Napoleon’s men were starved and can­ni­balised. About 500,000 of them died, but not be­fore their de­jected leader had left his troops and re­turned to the stately grandeur of Fon­tainebleau to brood.

The thing that fas­ci­nated Kroger

about the fa­mous gen­eral, he said, was the con­tra­dic­tion be­tween Napoleon’s bru­tal­ity and his “re­mark­able re­fine­ment and taste”. What is telling is that Kroger, the pres­i­dent of the Vic­to­rian branch of the Lib­eral Party, thinks th­ese qual­i­ties make for a strange unit, or­di­nar­ily es­tranged, as if a sin­gle ego can’t cul­ti­vate both war and op­u­lence. Yet Napoleon could wage war and find refuge in ex­quis­ite man­sions; he could find equal and com­ple­men­tary val­i­da­tion in each. The same might be said of Kroger.

Napoleon be­came a gen­eral at 24. Michael Kroger – swag­ger­ing lawyer, busi­ness­man, aes­thete – be­came pres­i­dent of the Vic­to­rian Lib­eral Party in 1987 at the age of 30. He re­mained for five years. Then, in 2015, he re­turned, and has since sur­vived two im­pas­sioned chal­lenges. He now has as his deputy 28-year-old Mar­cus Bas­ti­aan, an equally tru­cu­lent and am­bi­tious man. To some in the party, Bas­ti­aan re­minds them of a young Kroger.

To­gether, with a band of acolytes and hard-right con­ser­va­tives, they have em­barked upon a “re­formist rev­o­lu­tion” of the Vic­to­rian Lib­eral Party. It has been swift, ruth­less and bruis­ing – and, de­pend­ing upon how you cal­cu­late it, very suc­cess­ful. Oth­ers in the party curse Kroger’s ar­ro­gance and quixotic bat­tles, and his sup­port of Bas­ti­aan, re­garded by mod­er­ates as a bomb-throw­ing branch stacker with no re­spect for the lib­eral Deaki­nite tra­di­tion in Vic­to­ria.

In the state once de­scribed by its Lib­eral premier as the jewel in his party’s crown, it has been a tu­mul­tuous time for the Vic­to­rian Lib­eral Party. Henry Bolte’s fa­mous de­scrip­tion of the Gar­den State was al­most 50 years ago, and the Lib­eral Party has held power for just four of the past 19 years. In a lit­tle over a year, there have been two ac­ri­mo­nious chal­lenges to Kroger’s pres­i­dency. The first, last year, was made by Howard min­is­ter

Peter Reith, who ar­gued Kroger was too dis­rup­tive. Reith with­drew after suf­fer­ing a stroke – but not be­fore re­ceiv­ing the en­dorse­ment of state Lib­eral leader Matthew Guy, in­creas­ing ten­sions be­tween the par­lia­men­tary and ex­ec­u­tive arms of the party.

At the party’s state coun­cil last month, the vice-pres­i­dent and trea­surer Greg Han­nan made his chal­lenge. Han­nan had re­placed Damien Man­tach, who in July 2016 was jailed for five years for de­fraud­ing the party of $1.5 mil­lion. Han­nan lost the vote 721–448, and some in mod­er­ate fac­tions grum­bled pri­vately about the ag­gres­sive re­cruit­ment of del­e­gates’ votes. Han­nan sub­se­quently stood aside, while Mar­cus Bas­ti­aan was voted into one of four deputy po­si­tions. When Matthew Guy ad­dressed the coun­cil, he pledged to “Make Vic­to­ria Safe Again” and some mod­er­ates may have been left won­der­ing if he was re­fer­ring to them and the threat of a newly em­pow­ered, hard-right ex­ec­u­tive.

This is far from the only drama dis­rupt­ing the party. Both Reith and Han­nan made par­tic­u­lar men­tion of Kroger’s ex­pen­sive and bloody-minded war against the Cor­mack Foun­da­tion, an as­so­ci­ated in­vest­ment com­pany and the party’s largest donor. The foun­da­tion was es­tab­lished in 1988 with the profit of the sale of Mel­bourne ra­dio sta­tion 3XY. Helmed by Charles Goode – a for­mer chair­man of ANZ – the com­pany’s ini­tial in­vest­ments of $15 mil­lion have to­day grown to al­most $70 mil­lion. It has do­nated $40 mil­lion to the party over the past 18 years. But when Kroger learnt that the Cor­mack Foun­da­tion had con­trib­uted small amounts to Fam­ily First and David Ley­on­hjelm’s Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party, he was in­censed. The would-be Napoleon later launched court ac­tion to seize con­trol of the fund – de­spite the ar­dent protests of col­leagues, who viewed the ac­tion as a likely and ex­pen­sive fail­ure, and one that would make pub­lic fi­nances and frac­tures best kept pri­vate.

It went be­fore a judge in March. Em­bar­rass­ingly for a party that prides it­self on its sober ac­count­ing, the Cor­mack Foun­da­tion’s di­rec­tors said that if they turned the trust over to the Lib­eral Party, the funds would be squan­dered. What’s more, it was es­tab­lished as an in­de­pen­dent en­tity with a man­date to pro­vide to free-en­ter­prise or­gan­i­sa­tions and par­ties. The hear­ings are now com­plete, but a judgement has not been de­liv­ered. Le­gal costs for the party may reach $3 mil­lion, of which Kroger has pledged $1 mil­lion of his own. For a party strug­gling fi­nan­cially – its mem­ber­ship has al­most halved since the year the foun­da­tion was cre­ated – Kroger’s bat­tle was seen as ego­tis­ti­cal reck­less­ness.

If all this wasn’t suf­fi­cient drama, there was the no­to­ri­ous meet­ing be­tween Matthew Guy and, among oth­ers, al­leged Mafia boss Tony Madaf­feri at a Mel­bourne seafood restau­rant called the Lob­ster Cave. Fair­fax’s re­port­ing of the meet­ing co­in­cided with Guy’s pub­lic cam­paign on law and or­der. As head­lines and talk­back were dom­i­nated by the news, Mel­bourne’s bill­boards and tram stops were plas­tered with Guy’s pledge to be tough on crime. Guy was, tem­po­rar­ily at least, un­der­mined – which was just fine with Kroger and Bas­ti­aan. Things wors­ened when phone tapes of Bar­rie Macmil­lan – a strange and lowly fundraiser with a fraud con­vic­tion – were leaked. The tapes in­cluded Macmil­lan char­ac­ter­is­ing the meet­ing as an op­por­tu­nity to ar­range do­na­tions, and he dis­cussed ways of split­ting the money into tranches be­neath the de­clar­able thresh­old. Macmil­lan re­signed, Guy re­ferred him­self to the state cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tor, the In­de­pen­dent Broad­based Anti-cor­rup­tion Com­mis­sion, which de­clined to pur­sue the mat­ter, and the prime min­is­ter was com­pelled to com­ment, say­ing fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors would examine the tapes and their ori­gin.

Among all this swirls the hu­man cy­clone of Mar­cus Bas­ti­aan. Ar­tic­u­late and pug­na­cious, the for­mer high­school de­bater and founder of soft­ware com­pany Lead has as­serted a dra­matic in­flu­ence over the party in a short time. His in­flu­ence flows not just from Kroger’s im­pri­matur, but his ag­gres­sive re­cruit­ment of re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives an­gered by Safe Schools and the pas­sage of eu­thana­sia laws. In Mel­bourne’s sand­belt, Bas­ti­aan has con­scripted heav­ily from churches – at the re­cent state coun­cil, five Mor­mons were elected to party po­si­tions, an un­prece­dented level of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in­clud­ing Dr Ivan Stra­tov, an ex­pert in in­fec­tious dis­eases. In a speech at an anti-Safe Schools fo­rum last year, Stra­tov said: “I stud­ied a dis­ease called HIV; 35 mil­lion peo­ple have died from that dis­ease be­cause they all de­cided they were go­ing to make man’s love, not God’s love. Look at what’s hap­pened to them.”

Bas­ti­aan’s foes re­gard him as a branch stacker; Bas­ti­aan con­tends that his re­cruit­ment is fair game, democ­racy at work. He is con­cerned that the Lib­eral Party no longer rep­re­sents “as­pi­ra­tional Aus­tralians” and says he is re­cruit­ing peo­ple who share his val­ues of faith and self-reliance.

At an Oc­to­ber 2016 Lib­eral event – the Demo­cratic Re­form Con­ven­tion – Bas­ti­aan spoke con­fi­dently to a cheer­ing New South Wales crowd that in­cluded Tony Ab­bott. “You had the best and bright­est, a gen­er­a­tion of great Lib­er­als, prime min­is­ters, ide­o­log­i­cal lead­ers, peo­ple who gen­uinely rep­re­sented as­pi­ra­tional Aus­tralians, the work­ing mid­dle class,” he said. “I don’t know if you have that to­day. I don’t know.”

Bas­ti­aan ex­pressed con­cern that Aus­tralians were in­creas­ingly con­temp­tu­ous of politi­cians, dis­en­gaged from par­ties, and los­ing faith in democ­racy. Of his own party, he said that it was at risk of be­ing ru­ined by ca­reer politi­cians and “Green bu­reau­crats”.

The rhetoric was sim­i­lar to one of his prom­i­nent sup­port­ers, fed­eral As­sis­tant Trea­surer Michael Sukkar, who rep­re­sents the Vic­to­rian seat of Deakin. The month fol­low­ing Bas­ti­aan’s speech, Sukkar boasted to col­leagues in a se­cretly recorded meet­ing that the “so­cial­ists” who had in­fil­trated the party would be crushed. “The last bas­tion, the last ves­tige of con­ser­vatism which is the Lib­eral Party, is the last in­sti­tu­tion that they’re try­ing to get their way into. And like ter­mites, they’ll get in and they’ll eat us from the in­side out un­less we do some­thing. And we are the van­guard, we are the ones that are go­ing to stop it … We’ve halted the charge – now I think it’s about time we turned the screws on and start reim­pos­ing our will over the party.

“We’re try­ing to over­turn in 12 months, 15 years of peo­ple work­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion of what we’re do­ing. And I think we’ve been able to ba­si­cally turn around a decade in 12 months. So imag­ine what we’re go­ing to be able to do in another 12 months – it will be quite ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

A part of that strat­egy, fol­low­ing the ag­gres­sively in­creased rep­re­sen­ta­tion of con­ser­va­tives in ex­ec­u­tive po­si­tions, is to as­sert in­flu­ence over the pre­s­e­lec­tion, which in­cludes, po­ten­tially, dis­re­gard­ing the cus­tom of re­spect­ing in­cum­bency. This week, state Lib­eral pre­s­e­lec­tions were due to open. Turn­bull him­self had ex­pressed a de­sire for the process to oc­cur early, quickly and pain­lessly, and en­dorsed all sit­ting mem­bers and se­na­tors. But Bas­ti­aan re­v­ersed this, in open de­fi­ance of the prime min­is­ter. Among some mod­er­ate Lib­er­als, there’s a sus­pi­cion that Bas­ti­aan has done this to buy time, to find al­ter­na­tive, ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates – threat­en­ing first-term se­na­tors James Pater­son and Jane Hume, whom he con­sid­ers mod­er­ate. Hume has at­tracted the ire of An­drew Bolt who, like Bas­ti­aan, de­spairs at the “Turn­bulli­sa­tion” of the party. In an edi­to­rial last year, fol­low­ing Hume’s dis­missal of the Amer­i­can lib­er­tar­ian en­fant ter­ri­ble Milo Yiannopou­los, Bolt said: “I could hardly be­lieve it when so­called Lib­eral se­na­tor Jane Hume sneered not at the fas­cist left – th­ese thugs against free speech – but at the peo­ple they were at­tack­ing: Milo and the many thou­sands of peo­ple want­ing to hear him … For a Lib­eral not to ‘get the fuss’ about Milo – and the 14,000 tick­ets sold to lib­er­tar­i­ans and con­ser­va­tives around the coun­try – ex­plains per­fectly why the Lib­er­als are los­ing mem­bers and do­na­tions.”

This was cat­nip to Bas­ti­aan and his sup­port­ers. But the ques­tion is: is the new, in­sur­rec­tion­ist, ul­tra­right com­po­si­tion of the Lib­eral Party go­ing to find in­creased suc­cess in the com­par­a­tively pro­gres­sive state of Vic­to­ria? It is one thing to stage a Trumpian takeover of the party; another to find en­dur­ing elec­toral suc­cess. Cer­tainly the party’s mod­er­ates feel this way. But per­haps Kroger – the man who re­pro­duced five of his stately rooms in the style of Napoleon’s First Em­pire – has sim­ply sniffed the wind. Elites can run an anti-elite cam­paign. Trump is re­sound­ing proof. And there’s fun to be had in the wars to be waged. But as Napoleon said: “From the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous there

• is but one step.”


MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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