A directionless, self-obsessed rabble: Liberal brand is damaged goods
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A directionless, self-obsessed rabble: Liberal brand is damaged goods

One of the hardest things in life is to see yourself as others see you – not how you want them to see you. Voters are living a reality that our politicians just can’t seem to grasp.

The Liberal Party is totally consumed by itself. It is an unfortunate combination of selfishness, ignorance and pure arrogance to ignore what has happened to the standing of the party in the Longman and Wentworth byelections, and the Victorian state election and, even worse, to deny any lessons, simply offering spurious and fallacious excuses blaming everything and everybody else.

The Liberal brand is damaged ...  Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton.

The Liberal brand is damaged ... Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

How and why is it that Peter Dutton, hailed as the master campaigner, who was being supported against Malcolm Turnbull in the naive belief that he could win Queensland, failed so miserably in Longman, his neighbouring seat? It can’t be all blamed on the candidate, his foibles, his poor campaign.

How and why did the party lose Wentworth, an iconic Liberal seat? This loss can’t be dismissed as an atypical seat. Kerryn Phelps didn’t “just win” by some 1800 votes – she achieved a swing of almost 20 per cent in one of the government’s safest seats.

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The Victorian election wasn’t just lost on state issues. Any objective assessment of Labor's Daniel Andrews would say that he carried a lot of baggage. He was a dithering Premier, at best, costing the state dearly in jettisoning road projects, failing to deliver on a host of other promises, with a string of his ministers and their staff having rorted the electoral system, and operating as a total captive of the union movement. Why was all this ignored, so decisively, by the Victorian voters?

What caused the unexpected collapse in Liberal support in such taken-for-granted strongholds as Caulfield, Brighton, Hawthorn and Prahran? It’s not enough to fall into denial – to blame state issues, or refer to Victoria as Australia’s Massachusetts. It's nearly a third of Australia.

The reality is that the Liberal brand is damaged. The party is now characterised by disunity and disloyalty, by tribalism, not by principle or policy but by personal interests – not even party interests and certainly not the national interest.

The government is increasingly presenting as a directionless rabble, a perception compounded daily by knee-jerk reactions by Scott Morrison and others as questions and pressures arise. Traditional Liberal voters are the forgotten people.

Saved by Scott Morrison's intervention ... Liberal MP Craig Kelly.

Saved by Scott Morrison's intervention ... Liberal MP Craig Kelly.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

While the objective, for many years, has been to give the rank and file a greater voice in preselections, and on policy, Morrison suddenly confirmed the preselection of all sitting members this week, just to save one of the least loyal, and most disruptive, Craig Kelly, who had clearly lost the support of his constituency. What about Jane Prentice, Ann Sudmalis, Jim Molan and others who had been discarded? Wasn’t there also a clear message to Tony Abbott, who won his preselection by a few votes when there was no other candidate, as a significant percentage of the room just didn’t vote?

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Does it really help the image to have now made it more difficult to remove a future Liberal prime minister?

As long as the party continues to preselect the wrong candidates, expect the drift to strong independents, with established reputations, to continue. Abbott, Dutton, perhaps Greg Hunt and other insurgents, could all be so challenged.

Tribalism is increasingly determinant in preselections. The skills and alliances needed to win preselection, and ensure advancement in politics, are generally of little value in delivering good policy and good government. The process requires loyalty first to the tribe, then perhaps to the party, with the nation a distant third.

Despite what they claim, few who stand as Liberals come with a genuine policy agenda or commitment. Their end game is simply to be a politician, or a minister, or even prime minister. Not necessarily to achieve anything in particular – just to be there, and to enjoy the trappings of the position.

With little genuine attachment to principles or ideology, it is not surprising how easily some sell out to insurgency, especially when the thrust and threat of the insurgents is, as it was recently against Turnbull, that they will keep going until they get what they want, and if you don’t join your future in the party will be compromised. The weak, directionless, and unprincipled, are easily bullied in this process – but merely cannon fodder to those leading the insurgency.

More broadly, the ALP has a similar problem. Not surprisingly, there has been a long-term drift in support away from the two major parties. They used to enjoy 95 per cent of the primary vote; now it's at a record low, in the low 70s. In Wentworth it sank to 55 per cent.

The party/ government’s messaging is also all wrong. As much as they prattle on about their relative strength in economic management, about “jobs and growth”, after some 27 years without a recession, voters have increasingly taken economic management for granted, especially those under the age of 45 to 50, who don’t have the lived experience of a recession.

So, while aggregate growth and employment numbers are a constant boast of the government, voters are increasingly concerned about the distribution of those jobs and growth, about income security as well as job security, having to live with increases in their costs of living while wages are stagnant – having to fund their daily lives by running down their savings and/or increasing their debts.

Labor's greatest fear? ... Julie Bishop.

Labor's greatest fear? ... Julie Bishop. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Therefore, it is a massive insult to voters when Liberals, individually and collectively, are more concerned about themselves, their careers and what they can suck out of the political system for their personal benefit.

Perhaps the best strategy for Morrison and his team is to say as little as possible, to step back, analyse and reflect, with a view to a complete reset.

While Labor is becoming increasingly arrogant and confident about winning, and perhaps seeing a DLP-type split in the Liberal Party, its greatest fear is that the Liberals will reunite and dump Morrison for Julie Bishop a couple of months before the election.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal federal opposition leader.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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