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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Moderate Liberals are furious over the PM’s transphobic foray. It’s a dangerous gambit: burn their seats to win others.

Any lingering doubts moderate Liberals might have had that Scott Morrison was prepared to sacrifice heartland seats, including Kooyong held by his deputy and treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, to harvest votes in the regions and outer suburbs have been dispelled.

They smelt a rat on Sunday when he pledged to proceed with religious discrimination legislation without simultaneously protecting the rights of LGBTQ students.

Confirmation followed with an even more robust defence of his chosen candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, after her carefully stage-managed retraction of an apology for her transphobic tweets. Morrison, who had excused Deves’ repugnant assertions on the basis of her apology, now defends her retraction and backs the substance of her claims, undeterred by any mangling of medical or legal facts.

Senior Liberals fear Morrison has deliberately sealed the fate of moderates already struggling to survive, thanks to the poor handling of the challenge from women independents and from Labor in inner urban seats, which now threatens to hollow out the party and could eventually split it in two.

They accused Morrison of abandoning progressive Liberals and using Deves to chase conservative Christians or people of other faiths – as he did against samesex marriage in 2017, and in 2019 when he promoted his religion and refused to condemn Israel Folau’s homophobic rants – in the belief he could break through Labor’s red wall in the Hunter or western Sydney. One Liberal described that as fantasy, another as treachery.

According to three NSW Liberal sources, Deves’ campaign is now being run out of the prime minister’s office with his chief political adviser, Yaron Finkelstein, playing a key role. These accusations were put to Morrison’s office yesterday afternoon but no response was received by deadline.

Local Liberals are boycotting her and her campaign, preferring to help out in other seats such as North Sydney where Trent Zimmerman has been caught in a pincer movement between independent Kylea Tink and Labor’s Catherine Renshaw. Zimmerman had earlier called for Deves to be disendorsed.

According to one well-connected Liberal, Deves’ Sky interview recanting her apology was set up to resuscitate the issue, with the prime minister banking on getting asked about it at his press conference the next morning. Which he was.

‘‘I am absolutely pleased,’’ he said, ‘‘that I’ve been able to recruit and we’ve been able to appoint strong female Liberal candidates that won’t just run with the pack when it comes to issues, but will actually stand up for what they believe in. That’s what being a Liberal is all about.’’ Not everyone agreed. ‘‘Hateful and hurtful,’’ one Liberal called it, fearing for the future of the party if Frydenberg lost his seat.

Another, a former MP, said Morrison’s strategy not only amounted to deliberately sacrificing moderates, but to working against Liberals ideologically opposed to him. He called the betrayal of sitting members ‘‘an act of treason’’.

It is fatuous for Morrison to congratulate himself for choosing Deves when she makes Craig Kelly (another Morrison captain’s pick) look rational, and after he and his party have so badly mishandled the threat from the teal independents.

The sledging, the denigration of obviously articulate, accomplished women for daring to challenge the Liberals’ best and brightest manifested the sort of behaviour that had alienated those voters in the first place. They are daughters or nieces of Liberal royalty, they are doctors or small business owners, yet they are mocked for allegedly allowing themselves to be manipulated by a male multimillionaire, Simon Holmes a Court. They have been branded fakes, stooges and anti-Liberal groupies. They have faced legal challenges for the great crime of putting up corflutes too soon.

This petty, patronising campaign has seen Morrison’s problem with women go from bad to worse. Labor’s internal polling of key marginal seats has confirmed a visceral dislike of Morrison, adding weight to moderate Liberals’ complaint that he is the biggest drag on their vote. Although it is high everywhere, his unpopularity soars among women where his net approval rating is in the minus-20s. Among men, it is in the minus-teens.

The biggest turn-off nominated by voters is his refusal to accept responsibility, which explains why Labor’s ‘‘that’s not my job’’ ad has cut through. According to one source familiar with internal Liberal polling, 70 per cent of Liberal voters defecting to the teals have been driven by their dislike of Morrison. The primary vote of moderate Liberals in those half-a-dozen blueribbon seats plunged to between the mid-30s and low 40s. They need about 45 per cent to survive.

Frydenberg’s survival strategy is to plaster his electorate with ‘‘Keep Josh’’ posters. There is a near invisible Liberal logo and no Morrison presence. Posters featuring Morrison with Liberal candidates are as rare as yowie sightings. ‘‘People will win in these seats in spite of the prime minister, not because of him,’’ said one MP, still hopeful he could hang on. As well as Kooyong, Goldstein, Wentworth, Mackellar and Curtin under threat from independents, an expanding list of prime Liberal real estate is tilting to Labor, including Bennelong, Reid, Chisholm, Higgins, Brisbane, Ryan and Leichhardt.

Morrison’s political strategy to back Deves could well be deeply flawed. Or it might, like his reluctance to back real wage rises for the poorest Australians, prove to be a masterstroke.

Most troubling is the morality of it. It is cruel and reprehensible that such a sensitive matter, with the potential to cause grievous harm to vulnerable people, has been planted amid an election campaign by a flailing, floundering prime minister.

Niki Savva is a regular SMH columnist. She was a staffer to former prime minister John Howard and former treasurer Peter Costello.

This article was first published in The SMH

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