Federal Politics


Liberals make a wise choice

It is generally conceded, even by his enemies and detractors, that Zed Seselja performed heroically in taking the ACT Liberals to within an ace of government in the ACT, and many pundits are likely to assume that his successor as party leader, Jeremy Hanson, will hew to much the same ideological and strategic line. The image of the Seselja-led opposition as tough and uncompromising opponents over the past four years was due in large measure to Mr Hanson's willingness to don hob-nailed boots in the Legislative Assembly - he once led opposition refusals to grant Jon Stanhope a parliamentary pair when the then chief minister went on holidays, and in 2011 was ejected from the chamber by speaker Shane Rattenbury for unparliamentary behaviour. In his capacity as opposition health spokesman, however, he was also a tireless and effective performer in the Assembly, particularly in pursuit of Katy Gallagher over the data-tampering affair at the Canberra Hospital.

He might have been in the Assembly only since 2008, but Mr Hanson's performance over the past four years clearly marked him as the individual best equipped to lead the party. Brendan Smyth could argue that he was the more seasoned politician with an equally safe pair of hands, but it's highly probable his bid to regain the leadership was lost (and early on) as a result of widespread perceptions in the Canberra electorate that he is yesterday's man. Indeed, Mr Smyth did not even succeed in retaining his deputy leadership. That was won by Alistair Coe, the only of the eight Liberal MLAs considered to be genuine foreman material.

In that sense, the Liberals have assembled the strongest possible team in order to build on last year's election success. One extra seat would win the Liberals government at the 2016 election, which is an entirely sensible goal. The reality, of course, is that picking up an extra seat in a 17-member Parliament will be extremely difficult.

The success or otherwise of this marathon endeavour will hinge largely on Mr Hanson's leadership style. Mr Seselja was front and centre of the party throughout his time as leader, and a man who exercised strong discipline over his parliamentary team. Mr Hanson can be expected to adopt a similar no-nonsense approach with his troops - and to continue to pursue the same populist economic policies that, arguably, did so much to bring Mr Seselja within a hair's breadth of government. One change that can be confidently predicted, however, is the adoption of a more statesmanlike attitude, since while all parties find it useful to employ effective parliamentary attack dogs, they prefer that their leaders remain at a respectable distance and above the fray.

At times such as this, it is not unusual for a new leader's maiden parliamentary speech to be scrutinised for indications of his true philosophy and moral leanings. In this case Mr Hanson's maiden speech appears to suggest social views somewhat to the left of Mr Seselja. This may stand Mr Hanson in good stead in an electorate long recognised as the most progressive in Australia, and indeed it is worth recalling that the Liberals' most successful leader since self-government, Kate Carnell, espoused small ''l'' liberal views. However, in a party where social conservatives are comfortably in the majority, Mr Hanson is unlikely to labour the point about any of his supposed libertarian leanings.

A perhaps more accurate reading of a new leader's intentions can be gleaned from comments in the immediate aftermath of victory, and here Mr Hanson gave every indication that it will be more or less business as usual for the Canberra Liberals. There will be no retreat on their opposition to such things as public art, the plastic bag ban or the introduction of a needle and syringe program at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

However, Mr Hanson would be advised not to make the mistake of believing that a carry-over of Seselja policies - and the longevity of the Stanhope/Gallagher Labor government - will deliver him the extra seat he needs in 2016. Perhaps Mr Seselja's greatest mistake as leader was his failure to come up with a plan demonstrating how the ACT's economy could be weaned off its over-reliance on land sales and stamp duty on property sales and put on a more sustainable footing. Instead he resorted to a questionable campaign of equating Labor's well-considered tax reforms with a rates grab. Voters are unlikely to view a continuation of that negativity and policy inaction with any great enthusiasm.