January 09, 2004 | Graham

The Rumble in Ryan

Christine Wallace is a good journalist, but she must have hit a ditch in her circadian rhythms when she wrote a piece in The Australian on the 31st December, 2003. It was about preselection challenges to three sitting Liberal members in Queensland.
The article is written up as though there was something unique about these challenges without one mention of Malcolm Turnbull challenging Peter King in Wenworth which surely sets the benchmark. And how could Wallace have let one of the challengees, Michael Johnson, the Member for Ryan, get away with this howler?
“It’s an entirely appalling and disappointing state of affairs,” Mr Johnson said yesterday.
“I hope that people in positions of authority are able to encourage her to realise that standing against a sitting member is inimical to the re-election of the Howard Government.”
Mr Johnson said it was the right of any branch member to run for preselection, but added that it set a “dangerous precedent”, and sent a bad signal to voters as well as party members, for a preselected local councillor to run against a sitting MP.

This is the same Michael Johnson who mounted a preselection challenge to the former member for this seat, John Moore, at the time when Moore was Defence Minister and overseeing the Army’s engagement in East Timor. As it turned out, Moore resigned before the preselection eventuated, forcing a byelection, but Johnson didn’t appear too worried about the effects of his endeavours on the Howard Government at the time.
Johnson initially contested the preselection, but had to withdraw when it was discovered that he was not an Australian citizen and was therefore ineligible to be elected to the Commonwealth Parliament. While Johnson had known this for weeks, it only came out on the day of the preselection. In the meantime his antics in signing up supporters was degrading the Liberal Party vote in Queensland. Prominent Chinese were quoted in the media saying that they were supporting Johnson’s bid because they wanted to get a Chinese Australian into Parliament and that the Liberal Party had been targeted because its rules were the easiest of the major parties to manipulate.
The Liberal Party constitution allowed anyone anywhere in the world to become a member of the party and vote in any of the Federal, State or Local Government preselections in the Federal electorate where their branch was. This allowed Kitty from Hong Kong to fly in for the preselection, although she was not an Australian citizen and had no idea about Australian politics. Greg Roberts, then with the SMH managed to interview her, so we know about her, but who knows how many others there were?
Another loophole was that the Party has a concessional membership fee for pensioners, effectively allowing a discount for branch stacking if done with members who meet this criteria. Johnson signed up around 70 of these, including his now Chief of Staff Bernie Mack, and his now wife. When Mack was confronted on the issue he said he was a “self-funded retiree”, and therefore entitled to the rate.
As a result of Johnson’s withdrawal, former Liberal Party president and local resident Bob Tucker won the preselection, but this was to be the poisoned chalice for Tucker. At the time of his preselection win the Liberal Party had polling which said that they would definitely lose the seat with Johnson but might win it with Tucker. In the event Tucker just lost, with a 10% swing or so against the Party. Some of this swing can be attributed to the performance at the time of the Howard Government (it was recording the lowest primary vote in its history, according to Roy Morgan), an incompetent campaign (my analysis at the time is here), and the antics of Johnson.
As a result of the loss Johnson had another chance at becoming the Liberal candidate. He became and Australian citizen, signed up even more people and won the next preselection. However, one thing needs to be noted here. While Tucker did recontest the preselection, and didn’t win, this was mostly because the Bob Carroll faction threw its weight behind Johnson. That weight doesn’t rest there anymore. The two Bobs – Tucker and Carroll – are now involved in what has been dubbed the “Coalition of the Unwilling”, and this coalition doesn’t support Johnson. Not only have the factional alliances changed, but there are a lot of reservations about Johnson both within the Liberal Party, and the community.
That has led to Johnson being challenged by two serious contenders. The first is Margaret de Wit, the popular Councillor for the ultra-safe ward of Pullenvale. Second is Steven Huang, a Chinese Australian who has run for the Liberal Party twice previously. In 1995 he was the candidate for the state seat of Sunnybank. In 1998 Huang was the only Liberal Party state candidate to take on the party hierarchy over its disastrous One Nation preference strategy when he was the candidate for Mt Gravatt.
At first glance this looks like a perfect pincer movement. Huang will presumably command some support from Johnson’s Chinese branch members as well as broader support. Not only is his family well-respected in the Taiwanese community, but he is 100% ethnically Chinese. Johnson is New Guinea Chinese, and has a European father. While these might seem fairly abstract distinctions to those of us in the multi-cultural Australian mainstream, they actually count with the sort of people who are currently supporting Johnson and who are trying to carve out an ethnically based niche in their new country.
At the same time de Wit should be able to bring together a lot of the ethnically European vote, who are feeling a little like strangers in their own land. She also doesn’t carry the sort of factional baggage that Tucker did, making it possible for her to get broad-ranging support.
de Wit does have some disadvantages. There is a council election in March this year, and applying for the Federal seat might make her look as though she is not committed to the council. This is only a problem if the voters think it is. Feedback from on the ground in Ryan suggests that there is a strong body of belief amongst ordinary voters that unless the Liberal Party can deal with problems like Johnson, it is not worth voting for. If their councilor is the only one prepared to fix the problem, then she seems to have their support, whatever needs to be done. It seems that this move by de Wit actually increases her support and the Liberal Party’s.
This should have spill-on effects for the Council campaign. The Lord Mayor of Brisbane is elected at large by all electors in Brisbane, which means that votes have to be maximized in each ward. So de Wit’s move, by increasing the generic party vote, increases the chances of Liberal Party Lord Mayoral Candidate, Campbell Newman. It gives him a broader base on which to weld any personal vote he can attract. The problem is Newman apparently doesn’t see it that way and has given her an ultimatum to withdraw.
This suits the current party hierarchy because they want to ensure that Johnson retains the seat for reasons that have nothing to do with winning Ryan, and everything to do with controlling the Liberal Party. The factional balance in the Queensland Liberal Party is extremely fine. If Johnson, and his 400 or so supporters disappear, the Santoro/Caltabiano (Sicilian) faction can’t be guaranteed of maintaining control. As a result they are doing all they can to ensure that their ally stays.
They must be very concerned about the two challengers. Not only has de Wit been threatened with loss of her endorsement as a Councillor, but they have leaned on Huang as well. They are also blatantly disregarding the Liberal Party Constitution and attempting to manipulate things so as to make life more difficult for the challengers.
Nominations were called in December, which would have led most to believe that the preselections would probably be held in January. There is likely to be a state election in February, then a council election in March, meaning that the next feasible date for a preselection after January is April sometime. A January preselection would have let de Wit and her electors know where they stood right from the beginning, and also allowed the Liberals to preselect and field a replacement for de Wit if they so desired in time for the council election. But no, the latest proposal is to hold the preselection for Ryan during the Council election campaign.
There are likely to be two reasons for this. One is to put additional pressure on de Wit and Newman. The other is that a later preselection might allow more Johnson supporters to become eligible to vote.
As well, the constitution requires the party hierarchy to provide membership lists to candidates for preselection within twenty-four hours of their nomination. This has not been done with a variety of excuses offered as to why it cannot happen. It means that the membership of branches where the office bearers are friendly to either side are in a position to protect their branch members from lobbying from less-favoured contestants. This particularly disadvantages Huang. de Wit would presumably have access to her ward branch memberships as their Councillor, but Huang holds no office at all, and the success of his campaign hinges on winning a large share of the Chinese vote which is congregated in branches controlled by Johnson.
There are rumours that de Wit will bow to pressure and the manipulation of circumstances and withdraw. This would be a disaster for the Liberal Party. Not only would it signal to the electorate that the party is unwilling to do anything about Johnson, but it would signal to those unhappy with the “Sicilian” faction that there is no point looking to anyone else. If they aren’t prepared to follow through on this one, what will they be prepared to follow through on?
Next post I will look at the “Fandango in Fisher” where MP Peter Slipper is under challenge.

Posted by Graham at 1:13 pm | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Excellent read… i can’t wait for the peter slipper post.. i’ve taken a strong disliking to the lad after observing his abusive ways after the Bob Brown / GWB fiasco.
    I am about to move back to Fisher, so I want all the info you got 🙂

    Comment by alphacoward — January 12, 2004 @ 9:50 am

  2. An interesting insight indeed.
    Johnson seems to suffer from that not unusual political disease of selective outrage. Of course, it only kicks in when it affects the self.
    Admittedly, I don’t live in the electorate but his main claims to fame seem to be rorting (in a way that would not be allowed in the ALP) and dressing up on holidays to annoy the good residents of Ryan.
    There must be a heck of a lot of pensioners in the Queensland Liberal Party. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

    Comment by Darlene — January 12, 2004 @ 2:37 pm

  3. reconsider Margaret – don’t let the machine grind you down.
    Ryan deserves better than Johnson.

    Comment by twish — January 13, 2004 @ 3:28 pm

  4. I have just finished reading this excellent article and took special notice of the information regarding Michael Johnson’s parents. Michael has always stated that he was born in Hong Kong, when infact he was born in New Guinea. His passport states this! Along with this his CV states that he studied in Beijing, this is not true, he spent a few weeks, four at the most in Beijing in 1994 doing a short language course at which he was a very irregular attendee. There seems to be a basis here for untruths me thinks.

    Comment by Meg Anderson — August 11, 2004 @ 10:09 pm

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