John Hewson writes the lesson of the recent history of the Liberal Party is that it doesn’t learn from history.
It learnt nothing from the drubbing that Kerryn Phelps gave Dave Sharma in the Wentworth byelection,sparked by the resignation of Malcolm Turnbull. While Sharma did win back the seat in the subsequent 2019 election, he lost again at this year’s federal election. He was defeated by another strong female independent, Allegra Spender, on issues similar to those Phelps championed.
Liberal Party leaders just stumble and fumble around these days, claiming the need to stand for Liberal Party values that should lead the party to victory – next time. This ignores the magnitude of the task, given significant shifts in the mix of voters – which was particularly obvious in the May federal election – and the fact that the party has won only one state election since 1999.
Clearly the Coalition needs a circuit breaker. Surely the parliamentary motion to censure Scott Morrison for undermining our democracy would have been just that – a unique opportunity to take a very clear stand on principle, to start an effective reset. Supporting the censure could have signalled a definitive end to the Morrison era, by disowning his self-indulgent initiative to appoint himself secretly to a slew of ministries, and condemning the lies and the governing for mates and donors against the national interest. It was telling that only one party member, Bridget Archer, had the grace and courage to support the censure.
A couple of Peter Dutton-inspired articles have appeared in the Nine Entertainment media recently, attempting to differentiate the opposition leader from Morrison. But they’re marginal steps at best, and they fall well short of what might have been achieved by public support of the censure motion. This is not an issue of loyalty. Morrison showed none and has no right to expect any. Most know that Morrison was the main reason the Coalition lost the election. It was his toxicity, both personally and as a leader who was clearly out of touch on the main issues. In his arrogance, he was always blaming others and creating the impression that he was above it all anyway, accountable only to a “higher authority”.
Dutton also expressed his willingness for Josh Frydenberg to run again in Kooyong, though it would be difficult for him to unseat independent Monique Ryan. It sounds hollow for the likes of Frydenberg to act as a victim of Morrison’s overreach and to claim to have been “betrayed”. I doubt this strategy offers him much of a platform to run again. As deputy party leader and treasurer, he carried much of the responsibility for what was the worst government in our history. He had at least two opportunities between September and November last year to move against Morrison when his colleagues started to recognise that their leader could cost them the election.
“This is not an issue of loyalty. Morrison showed none and has no right to expect any.”
The Labor Party’s review of the most recent federal election confirmed that Morrison was a major reason why it won. And the Australian Election Study released this week – the largest one on the federal election – found that Morrison was the least popular major party leader in the AES’s 35-year history. Anthony Albanese rated more favourably than Morrison in eight of nine leader characteristics, with the biggest differences being in perceptions of honesty, trustworthiness and compassion. Greens leader Adam Bandt was rated more favourably than Morrison.
In commenting on the study, one of its lead authors, Australian National University professor of political science Ian McAllister, referred to a “seismic shift” at the election and “a large-scale abandonment” of major political parties, as the vote for the Liberals and Labor fell to historic lows, with the major beneficiaries being the Greens and independent candidates.
Understandably, there is genuine concern within the Liberal Party – parliamentary and organisation, federal and state – as to how best to position itself for future elections, especially in 2025. The decision to elect Dutton as leader, with his commitment to move the party further to the right, was nonsensical, especially when the losses at the May election basically wiped out the influence of moderates. With Dutton at the helm and the loss of key progressives to the independents – all strong professional women – the party can no longer be considered as a broad church capable of more centrist policy positions on the issues where it lost ground, that is, integrity and accountability, climate, women and gender.
The Liberals are fast becoming irrelevant with their narrowing right-wing focus, and are further handicapped by their coalition with the National Party. This partnership continues to cast doubt on their ability to govern for the majority of Australians – though some Nationals would argue that they have performed better than the Liberal Party in some seats – and to deal with the independents to secure government in the event of a hung parliament next time.
One particular issue that is defining Dutton and his team is their drift towards opposing the Voice to Parliament for First Australians, as evidenced by the recent intervention by John Howard rejecting a free vote, and the Nationals’ surprising declaration last week that they will vote against it.
The Coalition is falling further behind Labor as Albanese has hit the ground running, meeting his election promises by getting essential legislation through the parliament on the important issues of climate, industrial relations and a national integrity commission. The latest Newspoll shows the gap widening in terms of both the relative party standing and a surge in support for Albanese, directly and as preferred prime minister. Satisfaction with Albanese’s performance has risen to a record high of 62 per cent and dissatisfaction has fallen to 29 per cent. By comparison, satisfaction with Dutton declined to 36 per cent, while his dissatisfaction rating remained high at 45 per cent. Dutton is in danger of developing a Bill Shorten problem – his net satisfaction rating was never positive throughout his time as leader.
Support for Labor is more than six points stronger than at the time of the election in terms of the primary vote, which is now 39 per cent (compared with 32.6 per cent in the election). The Coalition vote is almost a point below its election result of 35.7 per cent. The two-party preferred vote is still unchanged at 55-45 in favour of Labor. Beyond this, the age mix of voters is shifting significantly against the Coalition, as only one in four voters among Millennials and Gen Zs voted for them at the last election. Baby Boomers and other older voters are rapidly becoming less significant, such that their share of the vote will equalise by the mid-2020s. This demographic shift has been described as the “existential risk” facing the Liberals.
What might Dutton do to improve his chances of winning in 2025 and becoming the first government since 1931 to be returned after just one term? I would list his three major challenges as: to ensure unity both within the Liberal Party and with the Nationals; to establish policy credibility; and to improve the on-ground campaigning capabilities of the party against Labor and the unions, the Greens and the independents.
Fundamental policy credibility will necessitate fairly ruthless truth-telling, acceptance of the reality of their past performance, and evidence of their capacity to handle the big challenges of this decade. Specifically, they must abandon the mythology that they have been better managers of the economy and national security. These false, repetitive claims grate badly with many in the electorate. The Coalition created much of the current mess in terms of the poor state of the budget and energy shortages, and they left issues such as aged, child and disability care, as well as education and health, to drift. They must accept that they need to win government; it is not an entitlement, they were not born to rule, nor were they chosen by God to do so. They must accept that there is no such thing as a safe seat.
To tackle its own complacency, the party must accept that its culture needs to change, which means clearing out poorly performing ex-ministers who, having failed to distinguish themselves while in government, are now proving irrelevant in their shadow roles. Angus Taylor is as underwhelming on issues of Treasury as he was on Energy, and Karen Andrews, who missed the opportunity to consolidate her criticism of Morrison with a censure, remains tarnished in Home Affairs by the shameful election-day revelation of an intercepted boat of asylum seekers. Paul Fletcher has been equally disappointing. The party needs to make room for younger people, including more women.
To define itself in policy terms, it is not too late for the Liberal Party to seize the agenda on the climate transition and in areas such as universities, Medicare, hospitals and tax and transfer reform. Forget the nonsense about being a small target, especially if you wish to demonstrate policy substance and credibility.
Overall, it is a national tragedy that the inevitability and desirability of a transition to a low-carbon Australia over the next few decades is not generally accepted. This should be the focus of the public discourse, with a competition of ideas as to the most effective and fair pathway to achieve that shift. There’s a clear opportunity for us to lead the global discussion and policy responses. The successful transition would represent another industrial revolution, based this time on clean energy and technology with all the advantages that would offer in terms of growth, jobs and improved living standards. Having ignored the significance of climate at the last election, the Coalition still seems intent on carping from the fringes on any genuine discussion, just taking cheap, unsubstantiated shots for what they perceive is to their short-term political advantage. They’re still defending fossil fuels and increased production, asserting turmoil over renewables in Europe, and even advocating nuclear power, or fracking of gas, just to muddy the waters of the debate and sideline any serious, deliverable suggestions. They seem to have forgotten their role in creating the energy crisis and are leaving it for the Albanese government to handle.
I just can’t see how the Coalition imagines this strategy would resonate with the electorate after the seismic shift of the May election. I fear they don’t really care and are all negativity, with nothing constructive. They are attempting to discredit and bring down the Albanese government, taking a leaf out of the Tony Abbott–Peta Credlin book. Indeed, I hear chatter of a Credlin bid for preselection – that’s desperate stuff, given her pedigree in bringing down governments.
To be clear, an opposition should criticise and hold the government to account. But they have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to be constructive where they can, the endgame being to work together to deliver better government, in our national interest. This is a particularly important point in such challenging economic and geopolitical times.
John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.