The Victorian Liberal Party is divided about what to do about Tim Smith.
In the days since the Kew MP drove his Jag into the side of a house in Hawthorn, the majority of his colleagues on Spring Street have reluctantly accepted that his time in state politics should come to an end in November 2022.
Opposition MP Tim Smith faces the media after crashing his car on Saturday night.Credit:Justin McManus
It’s not a decision they have come to lightly.
Smith is not only a political ally and friend to many state Liberals, including Matthew Guy, but he is an effective politician. His critics may loathe his brash style, but he gets air time and kept up the pressure on the Andrews government during the pandemic.
But his decision to drive home drunk last Saturday night has prompted them to think long and hard about the damage his candidacy will cause in the lead up to polling day.
How can the Liberals talk tough on crime or hold the Andrews government to account when Smith, who drove with a blood alcohol reading of 0.131, remains in the party room?
Smith’s decision to defy Guy, who declared the member for Kew should not recontest next year’s election, is also problematic.
Not only does it undermine Guy’s authority as leader, but Smith has left open the possibility that Guy wasn’t being upfront with the public when he insisted that he had driven to the Mornington Peninsula to tell the Kew MP not to recontest the 2022 election.
While almost every one of Smith’s 30 colleagues on Spring Street now believe he has no option but to stand aside, he has found support from colleagues in Canberra who insist Smith be given more time to reflect on his career, directly undermining Guy who has made his wishes clear.
State MPs, including Guy, have spent days fielding calls from members of Morrison’s frontbench lobbying on Smith’s behalf.
Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy on Thursday.Credit:Eddie Jim
None are willing to publicly back Smith but their calls for “more time” is offering Smith gentle encouragement to stay put in the vain hope it will all blow over.
They are motivated by a mixture of genuine friendship, loyalty and political convenience.
For a state MP, Tim Smith has always had an unusual influence and notoriety in Canberra, as evidenced by the decision of former prime minister Tony Abbott to throw his support behind the embattled MP as he fights for his political career.
Key among his Canberra allies is Treasurer John Frydenberg whose seat of Kooyong takes in Kew. At times Smith has been regarded, perhaps unfairly, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Frydenberg’s. But in truth, the pair are friends. Frydenberg spoke at Smith’s 30th birthday and the two MPs rarely go a week without talking.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says Tim Smith needs to do some “soul searching”.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Other federal ministers, including Greg Hunt, Alan Tudge and Michael Sukkar have also offered Smith significant support throughout his career. Favours have been returned.
To put it simply, Smith’s resignation will diminish the impact federal MPs have on Spring Street. Then there is the matter of who takes his seat.
In Smith, Frydenberg has a friend and ally in his patch. Opening up a preselection battle for the seat of Kew would be an unnecessary distraction for the federal team, particularly Frydenberg who would be directly impacted by the outcome.
As one Liberal MP put it so succinctly, “Matthew needs clear air to win an election, but the object of the federal team isn’t necessarily to win state government, but to continue to have power and control.”
Mr Smith’s car being towed from the crash site on Saturday night.Credit:Olivia and Charlotte Neish
While state and federal MPs fight, Premier Daniel Andrews’ own party avoids scrutiny during a corruption inquiry while Liberals bicker about Smith’s future.
Guy wants to avoid pressing the “pull in case of emergency” button and evict Smith from his parliamentary Liberal team. Instead, he will be desperately hoping the Liberal Party’s administrative committee ends this sorry saga by refusing to endorse Smith as a candidate.
And that is a genuine possibility.
Among the 97 questions potential candidates are forced to answer to run for the Liberal Party next year are two doozies which might provide a neat ending to Smith’s political career.
The first, question 11, asks candidates “Do you have a police record for any traffic offences, or have you ever lost your driving licence?”
Then, question 12, asks; “Have you ever been charged with or had your licence suspended for drink or drug-affected driving or are there any such proceedings pending?”
Answering yes to either question doesn’t automatically disqualify a candidate, but it is likely to create a hurdle that Smith will need to overcome.
While that might provide a neat ending to Guy’s headache, the administrative committee is also likely to make things a little harder in the short term.
On Saturday committee members are expected to extend the length of time that potential candidates, including Smith, have to submit their paperwork for the seat of Kew.
In theory this will assist Guy by ensuring a normally safe seat, which has been represented by Liberal luminaries including Dick Hamer and Arthur Rylah, attracts a potential leader.
But it will also give Smith more time to reflect on his position meaning the circus is unlikely to move on.
Annika Smethurst is state political editor.
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