April Fool’s byelection no joke for Liberals as party scrambles to pick candidate

The April Fool’s Day byelection called by the Albanese government in the outer-eastern Melbourne seat of Aston gives the Liberal Party little time to hold a vote to pick its candidate, while Labor has a head start campaigning after former Coalition minister Alan Tudge’s resignation from parliament.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Milton Dick on Monday announced the byelection, triggered by Tudge’s resignation, would be held in just under six weeks on April 1.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Labor candidate for Aston Mary Doyle during a visit to Bayswater Bowls Club last week.Credit:AAP

It was the earliest date that complied with the required 33-day notice period and fell after the NSW election on March 25, prompting an emergency Monday night meeting of Victorian Liberal officials that could result in a fast-tracked preselection process that avoids a rank-and-file ballot.

The tight time frame challenges the Liberal Party’s plans – agreed before the April 1 date was picked – for a ballot of local members on March 4 to select a candidate. Under those plans, the Liberals would spend between now and March 4 without a candidate as Labor’s Mary Doyle, a former trade unionist and finance worker, knocks on doors and puts up posters across the conservative mortgage-belt electorate taking in Rowville, Knox and Wantirna.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who wants the party to pick a woman to replace the scandal-plagued Tudge, said he expected a swift decision.

“I would very much like – in a democratic process that we have in the Liberal Party – for a female candidate to be selected in Aston. But, ultimately, that’s a question for the division in Victoria, so we’ll work on that,” he said in Perth.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton in Melbourne last week speaking about the Aston byelection.Credit:Nine

The Liberal Party’s administrative committee will meet on Monday night to consider speeding up its process. There remains a possibility it could take control of the pick and deny local members a vote.

Doing so would risk angering branch members required to campaign in the byelection. But it would guarantee a woman – likely to be barrister Roshena Campbell – was picked, avoiding the possibility of local members picking a male candidate, Emanuele Cicchiello, and defying the wishes of Dutton and senior MPs.

Some senior Liberals have speculated that the federal executive could use its extraordinary powers to overturn the preselection result if Cicchiello, a former candidate, was to win.

Labor strategists said an April 1 byelection would create distance between the poll and the May budget, avoid the predicted peak of mortgage rate rises and allow the Albanese government to begin campaigning straight away with a known candidate.

Dutton pitched his party as the underdog on Monday. It is rare for opposition parties to lose byelections because voters traditionally become dissatisfied with the government. Campaigners in both major parties believe the Liberal Party is likely to win the seat it previously held with a 10.1-point margin before the swing against the Morrison government in last year’s election reduced the margin to 2.8.

“The government’s still in its honeymoon and there are a lot of local issues at play, but I’m confident, ultimately, that we can win, but I think it will be a tough fight and I think we go into it clearly as the underdogs,” Dutton told reporters.

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