Liberals to select Dunkley challenger as Dutton risks another loss

The pressure is on for Peter Dutton to win the seat of Dunkley, unless he wants to make history in all the wrong ways. 

When the Liberals lost the vote for Aston last April, it was the first time an opposition had been defeated by a government in a federal by-election in more than a century. Losing two in a row, in the span of a year, would be unheard of. 

By Sunday afternoon we’ll know who the Liberal Party will nominate as its challenger for the Victorian seat. Three candidates are up for preselection that day, Crikey understands: Frankston Mayor Nathan Conroy, former local state MP Donna Hope, and former local state parliamentary candidate Bec Buchanan. 

A fourth candidate, David Burgess, is understood to have dropped out of the race. 

A Victorian Liberal source told Crikey Conroy, a three-term mayor, and Hope are seen as most likely to win the nomination. Dutton, the opposition Leader, is not expected to weigh into the process. 

Labor on Thursday named Jodie Belyea as its candidate for Dunkley, an outer Melbourne seat on the Mornington Peninsula that was vacated following the death of Labor MP Peta Murphy from breast cancer, aged 50. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had personally supported Belyea’s candidacy and said she had been recruited to the Labor Party by Murphy after she and Belyea met through their work for a community organisation. 

“Peta was always on the lookout for other local champions, and in Jodie, she has found one. Jodie is someone who will be an outstanding representative for this community here in Dunkley,” Albanese said at Belyea’s campaign launch. 

As is common in by-election campaigns, both sides are seeking to portray themselves as underdogs. The Liberals will have to choose a good candidate and mount a strong campaign to overcome a 6% Labor margin, the party source who spoke to Crikey said. 

The likely Liberals all have strong local name recognition, unlike Labor’s candidate, the source said. However, they acknowledged Belyea’s ties to Murphy would be a boost for her. 

Pollster and RedBridge Group chief executive Kos Samaras previously told Crikey the government’s chances of retaining Dunkley would depend on whether or not the local community felt like sending Labor a message of protest.

“By-elections are largely about casting protest votes — because the outcome is not going to determine who’s in government, it’s a matter of, ‘do I send the government a message or not?’” he said. 

The seat has changed hands between Labor and the Liberals several times since the 1980s, most recently in 2019 when Murphy won it on a 2.7% margin, which she increased to 6.3% in 2022.

The by-election date hasn’t been set, but it’s expected it’ll occur sometime in February or March.

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