Decaying Liberals oblivious to the abyss

Jan 3, 2023
Peter Dutton

The state of decline of the Federal Liberal Party revealed by its 2022 election review is so serious that even people who hope it never achieves power again should ask themselves whether it is in Australia’s interest that it be allowed to continue in its death spiral.

The party, as such, is in no immediate danger of collapse. There’s something about $50 million plus of federal government subsidy each year that allows its office bearers to be relaxed about their superannuation entitlements. But its prospects of regaining power at federal level in the medium term look bleak. The party has also performed badly in recent state and territorial elections. In Western Australia, representation at state and federal level has fallen dramatically. Recent Victorian elections show the electorate is confirmed in its view that the Liberal Party is unfit for office. The party is not in this position in South Australia, but the process of regrouping after major election defeat suggests it is at least two or three elections, away from being in with a chance. In Queensland, the polls suggest that state Labor could be in trouble if only voters could summon up any enthusiasm for the alternative – a task that still seems beyond the leaders and potential leaders of the merged coalition parties. The polls suggest that time is up for the Perrottet government in NSW, due to go to election in a few months. It is the state where the party is in greatest organisational dysfunction. Amazingly, however, the continuing high odour of Labor, and its thrall to gambling interests, could ensure a close contest. Liberal prospects in the ACT have improved, but probably not enough, so far, to push Labor out. The Liberals could hold on in Tasmania, and take power in the Northern Territory, but neither are strong bases from which the party can rebuild itself nationally.

Recent national polling by several organisations suggests that Labor has significantly improved its position, and among all demographic groups, since the decisive defeat of the coalition in May. It is the preferred party of all age groups, particularly young people. Women, especially working women, swung significantly against the coalition in May but have swung further since. It may not only be a function of Anthony Albanese and his team doing things calmly and conservatively. It could also be a result of the change of mood about the coalition and Scott Morrison. And the sense of relief, and reduced tension, polarisation and conflict that it represented. We are, it seems, more relaxed and comfortable now.

So why should not Albanese, his ministers, his party and its supporters be watching the disorganisation and slow disintegration of the Liberal Party with equanimity, even amusement? What’s the problem, from their point of view, with the Liberal Party’s becoming more and more unelectable? More extreme and daffy in various policies, more focused on branch stacking and factionalism than shaping policies, and more and more out of touch with middle of the road opinion, particularly among women.

By default, the Liberals are adopting Trumpian ways, Trumpian policies and divisive Republican campaign techniques.

Anyone inclined to see things this way should look at the politics of the United States. Differences between Republicans and Democrats have become so ossified that there seems scarcely a subject on which they can agree. It sometimes seems as if a civil war is imminent. Opinions seem often to start with party identification and adoption of the party view rather than any search for the party which most agrees with one’s opinions, values or instincts. Significant numbers of voters frankly disbelieve the legitimacy of the last Presidential poll. A party of convictions, often religious ones well out of the mainstream, that no longer seems to believe in science, or reason, and which has fallen prey to various nativist, nationalist and plain loopy conspiracy theories. A party which, thankfully, may be in the process of shedding the remarkable Donald Trump as its leader and most important thinker. But which will almost certainly choose an alternative without the guts to persuade rusted-on Trump supporters that nearly everything Trump ever said or did was self-serving, deceitful and a dangerous basis for action.

The Liberals, and the Nationals, have not yet succumbed to the worst excesses of Trumpian Republicanism. But they have more than got their hands dirty. And the effect of their doing so has been more dangerous given the Dutton Party’s lack of interest or activity in formulating new policy, articulating ideas, or providing principled, as opposed to opportunistic, opposition to government policies.

It hardly seems much better in Britain or in some of the nations of western Europe. Old notions, and institutions of democracy are tottering. Politics has become more polarised, less based on debate and reason, and more founded on tribe, religion and hatred of other groups.

The Australian Liberal Party has not yet become a clone of the Republican Party. But its leaders, political and organisational, and at federal level as much as state level, are continually looking at Republican political and campaigning techniques, and trying to adapt them to Australian purposes. There are limits to what they can do, given the substantial constitutional differences, including compulsory voting. But that has not stopped national and state leaders trying to mobilise potential supporters around fake issues, such as the supposed existence of significant religious discrimination. There are efforts to revive and weaponise issues such as abortion rights, the right for religious institutions and schools to discriminate against others, or the supposed threat of non-binary gender. It has not prevented concerted and continuing attempts to stack sub-branches with members of Americanised religions, such as the Pentecostals. It resembles Bob Santamaria’s efforts to create an anti-communist Catholic movement in the Labor Party in the 1940s. Nor has it prevented some players, including former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott from flirting with European politicians appealing to the politics of racism and exclusion on refugee matters.

The nutters and the zealots are inside the party looking out

As the Victorian election demonstrated, the party has not refrained from enlisting and using frank conspiracy theorists, including anti-vaxxers and sovereign citizens, to promote their cause. Or “fake facts.” The election review by former party federal director Brian Loughnane (partner of Peta Credlin) and Senator Jane Hume mentions, if with little frankness, serious failures in party vetting of candidates, with the result of deep embarrassments during the campaign when comments on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms emerged.

Indeed, it’s all a little reminiscent of what has happened to Labor after heavy drubbing at state level, such as Victoria, in the past. It’s usually been after significant scandal, crushing defeat and a party from which, at least for the moment, most ordinary decent members have retreated. Left behind is a small rump of die-hards, many of whom are ideologues and others of whom are obsessed with control over factions, over pre-selections and often over the state branch of the party itself. Internal behaviour and unpleasantness are often designed to drive away all but the most committed. The party loses even more reputation, even as those in control have more power, including power to embarrass national leaders at just the wrong time. “Baghdad Bill” Hartley was a specialist at such moments. Indeed, it has sometimes been possible to find a tame ASIO Director-General expressing concern about the risk to national security caused by the infiltration, or excess of power, from such tiny groupings.

Labor folk know that such people can be driven out only by fire and sword, and the concerted action of groups who want to end up with a party having merchantable election policies, attractive candidates, and a discernible Labor brand. It’s usually the work of years, sometimes, as Gough Whitlam discovered, of decades. But until it has been done, the party has been unelectable. Generally, the only short cut out has been when the party that has displaced them has offended the electorate in some way (think Campbell Newman) that voters think that the time in the naughty corner can be suspended.

If Labor has been through such crises, why should we worry about the prospect of the Liberal Party being in similar well-deserved turmoil? First, in the modern age, things move more quickly, consequences pile on, and the momentum and effect of political events are often hard to stop. Even when, almost by definition, it’s happening to the party out of power, smarting from the loss of incumbency, patronage and influence. With modern communications moreover, the statements, particularly the unwise, indiscreet and mad remarks of political players travel quickly around the world.

But more importantly, an opposition off its game quickly affects the quality of government. Bad currency drives out good. Political stunts on divisive issues are far from uncommon at the best of time, but provocations, dog-whistling and confrontations designed to create divisive artificial issues disrupt and distract ministers and effective decision making. A history of the Trump years will ultimately show that the impact of Trumpism on American politics ran as strongly through the Democrat Party as it did the Republican. And, as with the damage to institutions caused by the Morrison government here, it deformed proper, constitutional and prudent processes, along the way trampling over the law, the conventions and accepted customs of good stewardship of public resources. We have already seen from the multiple hesitations of Albanese and his ministers that there is resistance to any idea of restoration of the once accepted traditions, or movement towards newer and higher standards. Instead, we are finding some piece-meal changes labelled unconvincingly as reforms, and a lingering suspicion that Labor, at the appropriate moment will be as bad and shameless as Morrison and his ministers.

In the immediate aftermath of the election defeat it did not appear that the Liberal regrouping would be focused on becoming electable again. Any number of commentators, [most shrilly Peta Credlin] claimed that voters had rejected Morrison and the coalition because he was not right wing enough, and because he had spent too much time toadying to moderates and their causes. The solution, they suggested was that the party move further to the right, and that, in effect, they use a smaller umbrella to exclude small l liberals.

As it happened, the electorate had done that job for them. The Teal wave displaced most of the inner-city moderates, and not a few in the outer suburbs. The Liberals now hold only four of the 44 inner-metropolitan seats. It lost 13, six to Labor, five to the Teals, one to the Greens and one to redistribution.

The coalition held 21 outer-metropolitan seats, losing five: three to Labor, one to a Teal and one to a Green. In the top 30 seats with high numbers of female professional voters, the Liberals held 15. It now has three. Of the 50 seats with the highest proportion of female professionals, the Liberals now hold 10 seats, previously having 25.

The review is frank about the character and personality of Morrison being a net deficit for the Liberals. It also concedes that it was out-campaigned by Labor and the Teals. Reading the report, however, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was because Labor and the Teals had much more sophisticated computer analytics and resources, including money. In fact, when one considers the outrageous advantages of incumbency, and the party’s want of scruple about using those advantages for purely partisan purposes, the campaign, as much as the leader, was off its game.

Though the review observes that the party can hardly hope to ever achieve power by relying only on winning rural and regional seats, it has no strategy for embracing Teal voters, other than showing the Teals to be hypocrites, secret Labor agents and people with dubious records, if any dirt can be found. It finds that only about a fifth of the primary vote achieved by Teal candidates came from voters who had previously voted Liberal, yet retrieving their seats must involve at least some bow to the policies to which they are wedded. There seems no contemplation that the modern Liberal Party should be a sufficiently broad church to embrace the fiscally conservative, socially progressive, views that the Teals proclaim. I feel safe in declaring that whether the Dutton-era Liberals are, overall, more conservative or not, the Liberals will not regain office without representatives of moderate views. The longer that it ignores this reality, and ceases to fight for the middle ground, the longer that teals will entrench themselves in the well-heeled seats involved. It will become harder, not easier to dislodge them.

The Liberals lost despite an almost uncritical mainstream media. Was it even an asset?

The review recognises that the government’s loss of standing among women was a significant factor in defeat. But it seems to think that what follows from this are steps to get women more involved in the organisation. Hardly anything is said about why women lost faith in Morrison and the government’s approach to women, and about what poor role models, and inarticulate champions, of women many of the most senior female ministers were. Senator Jane Hume might, of course, be a very good example, but she was hardly the worst. The review hardly dares address issues of corruption and chicanery in the Morrison government, and apart from blaming the pandemic for its disruptions, makes hardly any criticisms of Morrison-government policies. Indeed, it seems to think they were all splendid. Perhaps the loss was the electorate’s fault for failing to understand that the medicine was good for us.

And for a party that talks of values and philosophies, the words scarcely appeared. Indeed, there is no clear statement, motherhood or other, about what the party’s philosophy is, what it stands for, and how any of this informs or guides policy. Values is becoming a code word in America for turning the clock back on such social changes as abortion rights, discrimination laws, same sex marriage, gay rights and gender issues. The more that Pentecostal Christian and other fundamentalist groups penetrate the party, the more we can expect to hear of this agenda here. But I doubt that it is a path to an expanding party, a vibrant organisation that is more democratic and representative of general Australian opinion, or a magnet for the many people, particularly younger voters, disenchanted with modern politics.

And there’s dead silence about another matter. The federal election campaign, like recent campaigns in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, was fought with a mainstream media which was very heavily and consciously biased towards the Liberals. tabloids threw away any regard for truth or fair dealing. But even The Age and the ABC were less than fair-minded. The defeat of the Liberals was despite this “assistance” – notionally worth millions of dollars — and the “fake news” and “fake issues” served on tap. Would the result have been better or worse without this help?

Or are some discerning voters well able to spot propaganda, special pleading and obvious prejudice? At an earlier Victorian election there were indications that efforts by Peter Dutton (and, unforgivably, Malcolm Turnbull) to stir community opinion against South Sudanese refugees backfired badly on the Liberals. Likewise in the more recent Victorian election, many commentators, some relying on once-trusted commentators closer to the action, accepted at face value that a swing of some sort was on, and that “dictator Dan” Andrews was deeply unpopular personally, with an electorate fed up with pandemic restrictions. Anyone who believed that was fooled. Anyone who trotted it out lost reputation and credit.

“The Liberal Party is not a lobby group or a think tank,” Loughnane and Hume insist. It is a political party whose objective is to form government to advance Australia. To do this it must be an effective operation and appeal to the broader Australian community.

“Self-absorption by narrow sectional and factional interests are increasingly restricting the party’s ability to meet this test, as are inflexible party structures. It is a precondition for revival that this changes. Maintaining an engaged and energetic membership and volunteer base is the responsibility of us all.”

Wise words. But it’s not merely an organisational matter, or a matter of efficiency. It is about uniting around ideas and ideals, and about principled if pragmatic leadership. On that the Loughnane-Hume review is silent, possibly because of embarrassment.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!