Paul Bongiorno: Desperate times in Canberra with thwarted comeback and Labor’s disappearing surveillance drones

Josh Frydenberg, pictured on election day in 2022, has exposed the Liberals’ issues with women, Paul Bongiorno writes.

Josh Frydenberg, pictured on election day in 2022, has exposed the Liberals’ issues with women, Paul Bongiorno writes. Photo: Getty

There’s nothing like the prospect of facing the voters at a general election to prompt apprehension – if not outright dread – among the political classes even though the poll could be 12 months away.

Sharpening the focus of the Liberal Party is the Australian Electoral Commission’s draft new boundaries in the state of Victoria, with the disappearance of the seat of Higgins in its erstwhile heartland of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

Much of the Liberal-voting areas of the once-blue ribbon Higgins – now held by Labor’s Michelle Ananda-Rajah – has been folded into neighbouring Kooyong, with some in the Liberal Party believing it improves the prospects of taking back that seat from the independent Monique Ryan.

A thought that apparently crossed the mind of former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who let speculation of a comeback run for two days before killing it off on X (formerly Twitter).

Private polling in November suggested he could retake it with a 52-48 two-party-preferred margin, and the new boundaries made it all the more tantalising.

The blowback from many Liberal women at the speculation was fierce, especially those actively campaigning to increase female representation in the party.

Charlotte Mortlock, founder of the women’s advocacy group Hilma’s Network, was incandescent with rage in accusing Frydenberg of being ”grossly condescending” expecting the endorsed party candidate 31-year-old Amelia Hamer to step aside.

A chastened Frydenberg beat a hasty retreat: “(Regarding) the recent speculation about Kooyong: I am not rushing back to politics, my position on contesting the next election remains unchanged. I will continue to support the Liberal Party and our local candidate Amelia Hamer.”

The fact is, apart from the conservative rump left in the parliamentary party from Victoria others are desperate to come up with a more user-friendly leader in the south than Peter Dutton.

The numbers are telling. There are 38 seats in Victoria – 25 are held by Labor, six by the Liberals, three by the Nationals, one by the Greens and three independents including disendorsed veteran Liberal Russell Broadbent.

The state Liberals’ decision to hold preselections well ahead of the redistribution was driven by the desperation they wanted to get candidates on the ground and running especially someone like Hamer – a young professional woman with an impeccable moderate Liberal pedigree as the grand-niece of former premier Dick Hamer.

But according to one Liberal, all they have done is “creating an (expletive deleted) mess.”

Although Frydenberg has his admirers on the ground in Kooyong there were many critics in the electorate who believed he took it for granted, opening the way for teal independent Monique Ryan to snatch it from him.

The way is now open for the political parties to make submissions on the AEC’s proposed boundary changes.

The re-endorsed former member for Higgins Katie Allen is still holding out hope her old electorate may be salvaged.

The Labor Party will meet on Tuesday to decide how it responds to the new boundaries. But with two other seats notionally much better for Labor, according to analysis by the ABC’s Antony Green, it may well settle for the new map with minor tweaks.

In the meantime, the Dutton-led opposition is pushing on with its targeting of the government’s handling of visas for foreign criminals seizing on an admission from Immigration Minister Andrew Giles that he got it wrong – saying surveillance drones were being used.

Giles says he was relying on information from his department when he spoke of drones in an interview with Sky TV last week.

He now says this information has been clarified, but through use of aerial open sources and different technologies and a range of conditions “the location of every individual” released by the High Court “is known”.

Giles will unveil new directions to his department and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (to become the Administrative Review Tribunal) later in the week on how to deal with criminals who have served their times and who have a long-standing residency in this country.

The minister’s admission came minutes before question time and seemed to knock the Opposition off course as it tried to pin the more tolerant treatment given to New Zealand-born criminals on Anthony Albanese after undertakings to former prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

It didn’t make much progress, especially as Albanese came armed with graphic examples of visa decisions made by Peter Dutton as the relevant minister that also saw some gross reoffending.

Giles, meantime, continues to cancel visas reinstated by the AAT – 30 over the past week and the government points to its support of a pay rise for more than three million lower-paid Australian workers.

A  chipper Treasurer Jim Chalmers taunted a Liberal MP from Victoria as he was being evicted from the Parliament for interjecting that “he should be careful or Josh Frydenberg might be in his seat when he gets back”.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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