Liberals want employers to allow their staff to run as candidates

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Senior Victorian Liberals have called on businesses to loosen rules for staff to engage in politics while the diminished party pushes to get quality candidates and well-credentialed women into its ranks.

Senator Jane Hume and former state president Greg Mirabella, who is seeking preselection to return to the Senate, said there were too many barriers for entering politics after seeing Liberal members forced to choose between their jobs and standing for preselection this year.

Sarah Overton ran for Liberal preselection for the Warrandyte byelection earlier this year.Credit: Justin McManus

Hume said she wanted businesses to encourage staff to be active in the political process, including running for preselection.

“A strong democracy requires citizen engagement in the political process, and your employment should not be a barrier to that,” Hume said. “Seeking to represent your community in parliament is an honourable pursuit, a civic duty much like serving on a jury or volunteering.”

Sarah Overton was given an ultimatum and had to resign as a director of KPMG, in line with the big four consultancy firm’s policy on political activity, to contest the Warrandyte preselection battle in June.

Overton, who was not selected as a Liberal candidate, but still had to leave her job to apply, worries there are too many barriers for professionals to engage fully in democracy, and that those able to participate are from a dwindling pool of people with the same backstory.

“I think democracy requires participation from across the political spectrum,” the 38-year-old told The Age. “There’s a risk to just putting your hand up, or being seen as politically involved, and that’s what I’d like to see addressed.”

“I believe really strongly that politics is a form of public service, a civic service, and you should do it when you can make a difference, and when your contribution might be particularly useful. I don’t think people should get into politics with the idea that they will be there for their career, for the duration of their career.”

KPMG declined to comment.

Amelia Hamer, the Oxford-educated grandniece of former Victorian premier Sir Rupert “Dick” Hamer, also had to choose between her job as director of strategy at tech start-up Airwallex and seeking preselection for the federal seat of Kooyong in inner Melbourne, Mirabella and three other people familiar with the circumstances said.

Former Liberal state president Greg Mirabella at the party’s state council last month.Credit: Simon Schluter

Hamer, who did not return calls from The Age, left Airwallex as a result. The company declined to comment.

Mirabella said women already faced barriers to engaging in politics.

“This is two examples of how hard it is for the Liberal Party to get good women in,” Mirabella said. “It’s hard enough for women.”

He said Liberals seemed to face hostility from employers who wanted patronage from Labor governments.

Liberal senator Jane Hume.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The party has been seeking to boost the representation of women to prove its relevance to the community after a wipeout in Victoria. Its federal election review — led by Hume and former party director Brian Loughnane — recommended establishing a national professional women’s network, which is under way.

The review heard that the personal and financial cost was an obstacle to women getting involved, as was “the potential for professional backlash on candidates from the corporate sphere”, and commercial backlash for those who run their own business. It also recommended developing a strategy to better engage multicultural communities.

Hume said the political system would be deprived of candidates if workers felt they were putting their career on the line.

“Australians should not feel like they are impacting their career by putting their hand up to run as a candidate. That’s not only because of our constitutionally protected right to political communication, but because it deprives our system of political candidates with genuine private sector experience, which is so often what business groups are calling for,” Hume said.

Kate Prigg, Victorian Representative for Hilma’s Network, established to help boost women’s representation in the Liberal Party around the country, said attracting great people to politics was a bipartisan issue.

“As someone who doesn’t have a family yet, I worry looking to the future that politics still requires a great personal sacrifice by the family of the politician, and the politician,” Prigg said.

Overton, a migrant from the US who is married to the son of a Chinese migrant, has worked as a ministerial adviser in the Napthine government. She joined KPMG in 2016.

She said politicians should have different backgrounds and perspectives.

“If you have to rely on your employer to give you permission to speak up, then the only ones who can speak up are self-employed or have particular types of employment. An example would be a barrister, somebody who can come and go out of their professional life and into politics, and back into their profession,” Overton said.

“Diverse perspectives, including Liberal ones, lead to broader policy discussions, better representation on different issues, and ultimately, ideally, more robust policy that works for a broader group of Victorians.”

This masthead has been unable to find any Labor candidates who faced the same dilemma in Victoria.

Public servants, such as teachers, nurses or department staff, need to resign to contest a federal election, but are guaranteed the right to return within two months after polls close.

The same requirement does not exist for state and local government elections in Victoria, but public servants need to manage conflicts of interest, which could require them to take unpaid leave.

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