Liberal MP Tim Smith, once touted as a future leader of his party, will quit politics at the next state election after deciding not to seek preselection for his seat of Kew.
Mr Smith made the decision on Saturday, a week after he drove while drunk and ploughed his car into a fence. It came after Opposition Leader Matthew Guy told his friend and political ally there would be no place for him in any government he led.
Opposition MP Tim Smith says he won’t recontest his seat.Credit:Justin McManus
In a statement provided to The Sunday Age, Mr Smith said that in light of Mr Guy’s stance, it was in the best interests of the party for him to go.
“Last Saturday, I made a terrible error,” he said. “It was my mistake and my mistake alone.
“I have been deeply touched by the encouragement I have received from Liberal Party supporters and members in Kew and around Australia over the past week. This, however, does not excuse the terrible lapse of judgment that I made last weekend.
“In view of the response by the Leader of the Opposition, I believe it is in the best interest of the party that I do not contest the next election in Kew.”
Mr Smith’s decision brings to an end a self-inflicted crisis for the state opposition at a time when Victoria is confronting the economic and social cost of its COVID-19 lockdowns and the Parliament is scrutinising legislation that would place extraordinary powers in the hands of the premier and the health minister in a future pandemic.
It is a bittersweet political victory for Mr Guy, who emerges with his leadership enhanced for taking a principled stance against the appalling actions of a member of his team but personally devastated at the turn of events which has ended the parliamentary career of his friend.
Throughout the first year of the pandemic, when then-opposition leader Michael O’Brien was struggling to gain political traction against a dominant Premier Daniel Andrews, Mr Smith was unrelenting in his support for Mr Guy to return to the job.
At times, Mr Smith wanted the leadership for Mr Guy more than Mr Guy wanted it for himself.
Bittersweet: Opposition Leader Matthew Guy.Credit:Eddie Jim
But having helped install Mr Guy as leader two months ago, Mr Smith couldn’t convince Mr Guy to throw his own career a lifeline.
Mr Smith lost control of his car on a Hawthorn street after abruptly leaving a gathering at the home of barrister Stuart Wood. Mr Smith failed a breath test.
He stood down as shadow attorney-general, apologised for his “serious error of judgment” and said he was surprised to be over the limit after drinking “a few” glasses of wine.
This explanation did not square with Mr Smith’s blood-alcohol reading of 0.131, which is more than two-and-a-half times the legal limit. It also did not satisfy Mr Guy, who after sitting down with Mr Smith and listening to his account, publicly called for his friend to give up his seat in State Parliament.
“I made it clear that I didn’t want him to nominate at the next election, and that I didn’t believe he should nominate for the seat of Kew,” Mr Guy said.
Over the past week, Mr Smith sought the counsel of his supporters, influential electors and Liberal Party figures in Kew and federal colleagues including Josh Frydenberg, a political ally of both Mr Smith and Mr Guy.
Some of Mr Smith’s local backers – former Liberal Party state president Richard Alston, life-long Liberal Jane Hargreaves and the executive of the Kew Electorate Council – believed he made a terrible mistake but it shouldn’t be career-ending. Another of Mr Smith’s prominent supporters, local retailer Jolyon Edwards, told him he had to put the party first.
The hard-headed view was that, even if Mr Smith convinced enough local party members to support his preselection and the party’s administrative committee accepted his candidacy, it would be difficult for him to hold a seat made marginal by a rising Greens vote and the erosion of its traditional Liberal base.
More pressingly, Mr Guy’s public comments left Mr Smith nowhere to go. On Thursday, when Mr Guy reiterated his position, Mr Smith had no other choice.
The demise of Mr Smith’s parliamentary career brings to an end a Liberal project that began in 2007 when the former national team rower took his first political job as a part-time electorate officer for Mr O’Brien.
Schooled at Scotch College, the alma mater of five Victorian premiers, Mr Smith had given up his dream of rowing at the Olympics because of a back injury and enrolled in a Masters of International Politics at Melbourne University.
His political aspirations were sponsored and encouraged by an eclectic cross-section of Liberal figures. As well as spending time in Mr O’Brien’s office, Mr Smith worked for federal MP Bruce Billson and, briefly, Malcolm Turnbull in his ill-fated stint as opposition leader.
While studying at the London School of Economics, he was introduced to Mr Alston, who was then serving a posting as high commissioner to the UK. Mr Alston in turn introduced the young, self-described conservative to one of his political heroes, Margaret Thatcher.
Liberal MP for Kew Tim Smith with Margaret Thatcher.Credit:Photographic
At the age of 26, Smith became the youngest person to be elected mayor of the City of Stonnington. Before he turned 30, he had tilled the ground so assiduously in the prized seat of Kew that his entry to state politics was a fait accompli despite a sitting government minister, Mary Wooldridge, contesting the preselection.
To help seal the vote, Mr Smith produced two glossy brochures spruiking his credentials. The first carried pictures of him baby-faced with his parents, his girlfriend, Britain’s Iron Lady and his teammates from the Australian eight-man crew which won a bronze medal at the world championships.
The second carried endorsements from a who’s who of conservative politics including Howard government minister Rod Kemp, Liberal donor Rod Menzies and Mr Alston.
Mr Smith spent Saturday night calling supporters to tell them of his decision and apologise again for what he had done.
“It has been an honour to have served the people of Kew as their Liberal MP and the Liberal Party,” he said. “I thank everyone who has supported me in good times and bad. I have let many people down and I apologise again for causing this mess.”
Mr Smith will serve the remaining year of the current parliamentary term on the backbench. Nominations for Liberal Party preselection in Kew close on November 12.
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