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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. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The Victorian right’s capture of the Liberal Party

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, vice-president Greg Hannan made his challenge. 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 conviction of state director Damien Mantach, who in July 2016 was jailed for five years for defrauding the party of $1.5 million. Following this, 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 Broad-based 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 high-school 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, ultra-conservative 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 so-called 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, ultra-right 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.”

This story was modified on May 14, 2018, to clarify the position held by Greg Hannan in the story.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "How the Vic right stole the Liberal Party". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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