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The poisoned chalice of opposition

The easy option – and one many MPs seem to be taking – is to blame Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien who failed to land a blow on the Andrews government despite its early ineptitude at handling the state’s COVID-19 outbreak.

His critics are plentiful, but candidates willing to try to lead their party out of the mess are much harder to find. And who can blame them?

Being one of the nine opposition leaders in Australia during the past 12 months has been about as pleasant as working in a quarantine hotel. Just ask Anthony Albanese who faces daily speculation about his leadership from colleagues who continually criticise his performance but are unwilling to offer themselves up as an alternative.

Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.

Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Disillusioned Labor MPs in Canberra openly admit they are unlikely to win the next election but they are hesitant to replace Albanese. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has lifted support for many incumbent leaders and that includes Scott Morrison.

The way they see it, putting forward a new candidate won’t guarantee them a win on polling day. Worse still, it could see a future star wasted on a lost election.

But stick with the current leader and there is a risk of losing even more seats, making the road back even harder.

Several state MPs have used this Albo analogy to describe their predicament ahead of next year’s state poll.

Victorian Liberals might disagree on who they think should lead their party, but most agree Michael O’Brien will never be Premier. There is a consensus he’ll either be replaced ahead of the election or lose to Daniel Andrews in November next year.

So who is the alternative?

That’s an area where the Liberals are split. Within the party there are several shadow ministers who believe they could be doing a better job and they aren’t shy in telling their colleagues.

Few seem ready to put their hand up just yet, especially while Daniel Andrews remains Labor leader.

Former leader Matthew Guy.

Former leader Matthew Guy.Credit:Paul Jeffers

You would think the humiliating defeat in 2018 would stand as proof that the Liberal Party needed change at the top. But the situation is so dire that there is still a strong group of MPs pushing Matthew Guy to return to the top job even though Guy himself seems ambivalent about returning to the role.

Then there are those pushing for an outside candidate such as former leadership hopeful John Pesutto, who lost his seat in 2018. This was a strategy that worked in Queensland when the state LNP recruited Campbell Newman to be the political leader of the opposition, before he had even won a seat in Parliament.

There was even a short-lived push to entice a current Victorian member of Scott Morrison’s frontbench back to their home state to take on the job. Unsurprisingly, a guaranteed seat at the federal cabinet table was more enticing than leading the Victorian Liberals.

But the lack of alternative candidate is doing little to strengthen O’Brien’s position.

Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien in Parliament this week.

Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien in Parliament this week.Credit:Eddie Jim

During the week the Liberal Party room split over whether or not to back Labor’s bill banning gay conversion therapy. Unlike many social policies that pit more conservative Liberals against the moderates, this manifested into a fight about self interest.

Liberals who fear the wrath of their more conservative branch members at upcoming preselection battles wanted to vote against the bill. Those that are safe in their seats but worry about alienating more moderate voters across the state wanted the party to back the bill.

Ultimately shadow cabinet agreed it would be a better look to try to amend the bill, but support a ban on gay conversion therapy. Unfortunately for O’Brien, several of his upper house colleagues defied this position.

On the surface this may have looked like a fight over policy but it was emblematic of the party’s internal woes. That is a scenario that is likely to be repeated throughout the year as nervous MPs squabble over preselections and a re-drawing of electoral boundaries, which will be diabolical for the Liberal Party.

All of this will make for a rather awkward week as the Coalition descend on the Mornington Peninsula for a fishing trip on Wednesday. A bonding exercise already lost at sea.

Annika Smethurst is the state political editor.

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