Former Liberal Party state president Maria Kovacic will enter the Senate after winning a preselection for the party’s vacancy on Saturday.
Kovacic beat former NSW treasurer and transport minister Andrew Constance in the vote, winning 287-243, in a much more convincing result than many members expected.
About 700 Liberal Party members packed out the Fullerton Hotel in Sydney on Saturday for the preselection to replace the late senator Jim Molan, who died in January aged 72 after a months-long battle with prostate cancer.
The result has been interpreted as a changing of the guard in the NSW Moderates, with Constance failing to get enough votes despite receiving the endorsement of former premier Gladys Berejiklian and the support of former foreign minister Marise Payne and her partner Stuart Ayres.
Kovacic, on the other hand, was backed by Liberal senator Andrew Bragg and the unofficial new Liberal women’s wing, Hilma’s Network.
Six candidates contested the spot including former Lindsay MP Fiona Scott, Shepherd Centre executive David Brady, Lowy Institute researcher Jess Collins and Space Industry Association of Australia chief executive and ex-army officer James Brown.
Kovacic, a member of the Moderate faction, resigned as the NSW Liberal president last month to nominate for the Senate spot.
In her speech to party members, Kovacic spoke about her Croatian heritage and how her parents fled communism in Europe. She also talked up the importance of childcare, home ownership and economic management.
In a statement after the vote, Kovacic said she learned early on about “aspirational values that drive our community” as a daughter of migrants.
“My parents fled communism for a better life in Australia and taught me about the importance of fighting for things that are important and working to build a better place for everyone,” she said.
“I have worked hard all my life to build a successful business and create financial security for my children. It was tough trying to balance the demands of a small business and family, so I understand what many in our community are going through.”
Kovacic said it was a special honour to follow in the footsteps of Molan, a former senior member of the Australian Army.
Kovacic was able to cobble together large sections of support among the Moderate and Centre-Right factions.
It was feared within her camp that her short stint as the state president could have worked against her, but she was able to convince enough Moderates to stick with her.
Bragg, who ran Kovacic’s preselection campaign, said she was “exactly the senator we need in 2023”.
“She is always going to be a leader; she’s never going to be just a number,” Bragg said. “She’s going to make her mark.”
Federal Liberal deputy leader Sussan Ley said Kovacic was a “formidable woman and a fitting replacement for the late, great Major-General Jim Molan”.
“Maria is not just a community leader in western Sydney, she is an accomplished businesswoman with more than 20 years of experience across the commercial, public and not-for-profit sectors,” she said.
Ley said one of her key priorities as deputy leader was getting more women elected as quickly as possible.
“The only way we can address – and rectify – the gender imbalance in our parliamentary ranks is by preselecting more women and I am thrilled that my home division, the NSW branch, has chosen to do that today,” she said.
“Maria understands what it is like to start and grow a business in western Sydney, to take a risk, to employ staff, and to manage the challenges of running your own enterprise.”
Kovacic has run a financial services business in western Sydney and co-founded Western Sydney Women and Western Sydney Executive Women.
Molan would have ordinarily been replaced by a member of his Right faction, and earlier this year it appeared that Catholic Schools NSW chief executive Dallas McInerney was the frontrunner to fill the vacancy.
Constance then put his name forward under a deal with sections of the Right whereby he would give up the spot in 18 months and run for the lower house seat of Gilmore for a second time.
Several senior party sources said on Saturday the move backfired as many members did not like the idea of coming back in 18 months to vote in another Senate preselection.
The Right’s only candidate, Jess Collins, demonstrated significant support after receiving just over 100 votes. The three other candidates all received fewer votes.
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