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Katherine Deves is making a comeback … do the Liberals have room?

As the federal Liberal Party seeks to paper over divisions in the party that emerged under Scott Morrison’s leadership or its imagined future under Peter Dutton’s, a distraction is entering stage right.

Katherine Deves, 45, the lawyer known mostly as the former PM’s “captain’s pick” for last year’s election and her inflammatory trans-exclusionary radical feminist opinions, is making a bid to join the Liberal Party in Parliament once again.

Ms Deves was one of the most visible figures in last year’s election after her views (and old tweets) surfaced during the campaign – which did not help her in Warringah, a once-safe Liberal seat that became safer still for teal independent Zali Steggall on election night.

Ms Deves’ preselection drew outrage from leaders of the New South Wales Liberal moderate faction, such as Matt Kean, who called for her to be sacked for “repugnant” remarks about gender surgery being “mutilation”.

The decision to install her also raised major questions about Mr Morrison’s reputation for genius as a political strategist.

It was even said the former PM had tried to counter a looming wipeout among urban voters by preselecting Ms Deves and waiting for her  views on transgender exclusion to forge a new Liberal electoral base in the outer suburbs.

So what do party MPs say about Ms Deves’ potential comeback?

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The Liberals only recently forfeited a piece of the outer suburbs in the Victorian seat of Aston, after which Mr Dutton seemed even to attack cities in his referendum rhetoric.

But Ms Deves tells TND she has been unfairly associated with Mr Morrison’s campaign strategy and last year’s campaign, into which she was installed after a Morrison-engineered logjam stopped the Liberals’ members from choosing their own candidates but gave him control.

“Obviously, I was a ‘captain’s pick’, which did make it more challenging to campaign,” she said.

“(Now) I have answered the call of senior members in the party … (to contest) a democratic preselection.”

This time she will face a ballot of party pre-selectors and enters as the significant underdog in the Senate contest slated for May’s end to choose a successor to the Jim Molan that seems likely to be determined by moderates, or forces on the opposite side of the party to the late Senator.

One of Mr Morrison’s unsuccessful hand-picked election candidates, Maria Kovacic, is making an audacious bid to quit as party president after only six months and parachute into the Senate even when the state party is leaderless after Dominic Perrottet’s defeat.

A push to preselect a woman from western Sydney will more likely draw key support behind former Lindsay MP Fiona Scott.

Ms Deves makes an unusual, even last-minute, standard bearer for conservatives, some of whom have in recent days got other things to worry about. 

Less shocking tweets by Ms Deves unearthed during last year’s campaign called trickle-down economics a “fallacy” and compared Peter Dutton to Lord Voldemort.

Ms Deves cites as an influence the radical Andrea Dworkin, who first came to prominence in the 1980s with strict and exclusive views on gender; she says it’s not her worldview that has changed.

“During the election campaign I received support from all over Australia, and indeed the world, the issue for which I became known resonates with ordinary people who do not wish to see women’s rights go backwards and common sense to be discarded,” she said.

“I intend to continue to stand for the rights of women and girls, parents who are shocked by what is being taught in the education curriculum, [and] protecting the interests of aspirational and hard-working Australian families.”

But Ms Deves says she is also prepared to toe the party line as the Opposition Leader fronts a campaign against the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

It’s a pitch to Liberal members she sums up as “sensible, conservative and centrist”.

Opposed to division

Her combative style has made Ms Deves very popular with some in the party’s base and Sky News PM commentators (some overlap).

When Mr Dutton’s stance on the Voice is drawing opposition from Liberals everywhere but Canberra, the prospect of adding further division on the issue of transgender rights is not appealing.

Victorian Liberal leader John Pesutto suffered a damaging blow to his authority after failing to have MP Moira Deeming expelled after speaking at an anti-trans rally that drew neo-Nazi protesters.

One MP suggests politely that Ms Deves might be the wrong choice for for the times and might distract the focus of debate.

A NSW source, standing opposite Mr Dutton across a divide with party state divisions caused by his campaigning against the Voice, says Ms Deves would be lucky to receive 10 per cent of the vote.

But one Liberal stalwart, former party treasurer Philip Higginson, backed Ms Deves and said members who thought her views would make the party unfocused or less electable were mistaken.

“It’s going to take a long time to win back the John Howard base, but it’s only going to take longer if they don’t believe they can prosecute an argument,” he said.

It seems unlikely that Ms Deves will disappear from public life if she does not secure an upset.

But preselectors will be sending a strong message about whether she can still be a serious candidate for the Liberals – whichever way the vote goes.

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