Flat White

Tim Smith did the right thing – eventually 

7 November 2021

4:14 PM

7 November 2021

4:14 PM

It’s rare for a state politician to get a national profile when most Australians don’t have a clue who their federal MP is. 

Victorian Liberal MP, Tim Smith, is one such rarity. 

Almost alone of the rabble of the nominal opposition to the authoritarian-inclined and social engineering-minded Daniel Andrews, Smith the social media warrior took it up to Andrews at every turn. He parlayed his notorious tweets and memes into national recognition, entrenched the ‘Dictator Dan’ moniker, and gained major national media platforms through Sydney’s radio 2GB and Sky News. 

In the past week, Smith’s national profile has never been higher – but for the worst of reasons. 

Smith’s drunk driving a week ago, totalling his car but damaging another and hitting the side of a house, has dominated news not just in Victoria but around Australia. He has rated in the top 10 Twitter topics every day for this past week. 

But Smith’s accident was just the start. 

His failure to apologise in his initial statement to the people whose property he damaged was a fundamental misjudgment, even allowing for Smith being shocked, upset and disoriented at the time. 

Likewise, his immediate ringing around his Kew electorate branch members to apologise to them ahead of those people was a big mistake, and fuelled the story. 

His calculated defiance of his leader, Matthew Guy  – who two months ago Smith guided back into the leadership – severely undermined Guy, was a gift to Andrews, and turned a personal crisis existentially political for the Victorian Liberals. 

His two media ‘car crashes’ on Wednesday, first with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell and then a rambling press conference, where his ‘I’m an idiot’ declaration, his inconsistency on how much he’d drunk that night, and his casting shaded aspersions on Guy’s statements about what he told Smith, were the stuff of Labor attack ads all the way to the November 2022 election. 

And then the open conflict between state and federal Victorian Liberal MPs about whether Smith stayed or went, was not just a gift to Andrews, but also to Anthony Albanese, who has several Victorian seats in his reach come the federal election next year.  

Today, however, Smith accepted the inevitable, which became so as soon a Guy declared on Melbourne Cup day that Smith should not contest the 2022 election. As it’s turned out, Guy – having in his first stint as leader taken the same stand on a DUI committed by another, now former Liberal MP – is about the only person emerging with any credit from this tawdry affair. 

Meanwhile, Daniel Andrews sailed serenely on, with Labor MPs instructed to keep their traps shut as the Liberals tore themselves apart. As for Andrews’s polarising pandemic power grab legislation, and Victorian Labor on the rack in the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission’s investigation into Labor MPs’ taxpayer-subsidised branch stacking, Andrews was let completely off the hook thanks to the total focus on Smith and the aftermath of his accident. 

The week before last, these were white-hot issues with Guy and the Coalition was starting, finally, to get traction against after nearly two years with Smith leading, with some success, parliamentary and public opposition to the Andrews power grab bill. 

But last week was all Tim Smith. Had he not announced he was stepping down today, that would have continued all the way to Christmas and beyond. 

It may have been against every instinct in his political being, but Smith has done the right and honourable thing. 

It may seem unfair that Smith was cut loose as he was by Guy, and perhaps Guy was too hasty to act while the facts were still unclear. Had it been .06 and not .131, Smith’s plea for a personal mistake being forgiven was reasonable. But once the leader decided to let him go, Smith failed to understand the decision must be upheld by both federal and state MPs, including him. To hold out against the Guy’s edict was highly damaging not just for Smith’s reputation, but for that of the entire state parliamentary Liberal party. 

Now Smith’s seat of Kew is open. It is speculated that former Young Liberal president, Jess Wilson, will contest preselection. It’s hoped she does. I have long said the next Liberal premier of Victoria is not in the current parliament: Jess Wilson has the intellectual and political ability, and personal qualities, to be that person. Regardless, the struggling Victorian Liberals need recruits of Wilson’s calibre. 

Tim Smith is a highly able political operator and tactician, known for working as well as partying hard. Alas, he is not alone in being a ruthless factional warrior with the Liberal party. Yet for all his brash style, Smith is not the bad person his media and party opponents paint him. He has been handed life-changing lessons this past week that could remake him to the good and, encouragingly, his statement today shows signs those painful lessons are being learned. 

Smith won’t vanish from the scene. He can still contribute to the Liberal cause as a state and federal campaign adviser, and his talent for cut-through-media commentary will land him regular slots on Credlin and Paul Murray Live. He also may yet be able to earn an eventual return to the Victorian parliament, where his political talents and name recognition will be a great loss for a likely third-term opposition with too few people of real ability in safe and winnable seats.  

But that possibility needs time and breathing space, not just for Smith but for Victorian Liberals generally. But on a difficult day for Smith personally, just now he deserves some peace and understanding. 

Terry Barnes edits The Spectator Australia’s weekday newsletter, Morning Double Shot, and is a member of the Victorian Liberal Party 

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