If there is one thing worse than losing office to the other major party in politics, it is losing strength in the factional balances within one's own party. On both sides of politics, even in mid-election there are some working for the defeat of politicians on their own team, even at the risk - indeed likelihood - that the loss of a seat may be the difference between government and opposition.
All the more so when party, or factional realists, appreciate that loss of office is the most probable outcome. Why not take the opportunity to see some factional opponents purged by voters - or at least made to fight without all of the resources that could be put into the struggle? Why not stand by when potential future party leaders of another faction - that is to say potential leadership rivals - are drummed out of politics?
Some people fear that the challenges of the so-called teals, independents standing in Liberal-held seats because they want more action on climate change, or honesty in government and an end to unprincipled rorting, is dragging the Liberal Party to the left. This is, presumably, because the incumbents, under attack for failing to promote effective climate change and anti-corruption policies, might try to present themselves as being more moderate in order to compete.
In fact, most of the incumbents under attack are on the more moderate side of their party politics. Robert Menzies and other early party leaders used to speak of the party as being a giant umbrella - and spent much of their energy trying to have it cast as wide a shade as possible. But since the defeat of Malcolm Fraser in 1983, there has been a lot less room for party moderates, whether characterised as small-l liberals, or as members of the party's left. This has been in part a function of the triumph of neo-liberal philosophy (and in Labor as much as the Liberal party), but it has also been a result of active ideological warfare by which moderates have been driven out or have been made to feel unwelcome.
The purges of the past 50 years were largely led by John Howard, but in the states, particular factions of the right have extended their influence and control - almost invariably to then anathematise views they regard as "wet", "woke" or politically correct. From time to time, moderates reorganise and snatch back some power - as they have over the past decade in NSW. But locally or nationally, there have been many Liberals - Malcolm Fraser, Ian MacPhee and Malcolm Turnbull might be examples - who have come to conclude that the party to which they once belonged no longer has room for their long-held views.
It should not be thought that Liberals are alone in having some members who would prefer that the party lost rather than some factional enemy in one's own party flourish. While a fourth consecutive Labor loss would be devastating to the wider party, some allies of Bill Shorten, the former leader, have not hesitated to undermine Anthony Albanese, and are less than enthusiastic about a probable Albanese victory. They are not, however, Albanese's main problem, particularly as victory seems likely. Judging by performance the central task has been to strip the campaign of anything other than symbols, and to abandon anything capable of being described as too much characteristically Labor, lest it frighten the punters. The timidity is probably a winning theme, given that the current popular enthusiasm seems to be for anyone other than Morrison, rather than for particular policies or causes. Indeed, almost any of the teals could win a charisma contest against most of the Labor frontbench.
The point of the teals is that they claim to be right-of-centre, albeit ones disgusted by the Morrison government's inadequacies on climate change, good governance and political corruption.
If teal candidates succeed, and some probably will, the Liberal Party will lose moderate voices, and the more conservative, and more authoritarian factions of the party will benefit. This will be immediately apparent in leadership ballots, but also in the distribution of shadow portfolios, and in the smorgasbord of policy positions. Those frozen out find it hard to regain power and influence, and must usually resort to grassroots organisation, or branch stacking, to get a hearing.
The teals say that they are essentially conservative, if liberal in their politics, and vehemently deny that they are either Green or Labor candidates in disguise. Yet if they succeed and operate collectively, at least on their common aims, in a quasi-party manner, they might be said to have created a new party of the centre, a potential refuge for moderates of the old Liberal Party. Something rather like the old Australian Democrats, if significantly to their right, and at risk, like the Democrats of being undone by the compromises necessary to stand still.
Alongside the challenges coming to some incumbent Liberal moderates are ones organised by the Australian Christian lobby, seeking to punish them for their votes opposing state-sanctioned discrimination by church organisations against transgender people. There are constituencies for such a right to discriminate, and not only among fundamentalist Christian sects well out of the Australian religious mainstream. The same-sex marriage plebiscite demonstrated that the appeal of a right to discriminate was to be found primarily in outer-suburban seats, particularly in Sydney. But in inner-suburban seats - the ones under attack from the teals - incumbent Liberals correctly perceived that they would be punished by their liberally-minded electorates for supporting bigotry. That is true even now, as is likely to be evidenced by the fate of the imposed-Liberal candidate for Warringah, Katherine Deves, whose political notoriety is founded on vehement opposition to transgender rights, including in sport.
A collateral attack may also come from Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, which has already announced its intention to withhold preferences from moderate Liberals in favour of the Labor Party. One Nation does not, generally, win many votes in inner-city seats, but the mood to attempt to drive more moderates out of the party will probably extend to other areas where the Liberals, and the Nationals, need every vote they can get.
Incumbents such as Dave Sharma, in the inner-Sydney seat of Wentworth, facing Allegra Spender, as a teal independent in spite of her impeccable Liberal pedigree, are bitterly arguing that they were voices in the Morrison caucuses urging action on climate change. And also, on other issues on the independents' agenda, including opposition to religious bigotry. They should not be punished for the sins of the Morrison government, but encouraged, by being returned, to stay in and fight. A member in the party has much more chance of building support than an independent, they say.
Yet most of these moderate Liberals, from senior ministers down to backbenchers, seem to have been signally unsuccessful in pushing causes, particularly on climate change. The gibe against Dave Sharma - that he has consistently voted for the same propositions that the leader of the Nationals, Barnaby Joyce, has promoted - is true, regardless of what, if anything, he has done or argued behind the scenes. Only on the religious "freedom" bill did any of the moderates exhibit any spine.
Existing independents (including those of the teal variety) as well as members of small parties have been much more successful in influencing government policy, or changing legislation, than any of the moderates promoting their minority causes within their own party. This has not only been because many of the important votes have been in the Senate, where the Coalition has lacked a majority and has needed to woo from the crossbench. It has also been a function of the attention, even in rural and regional constituencies, given members and potential candidates wanting more effective climate action.
There are some who suggest that the triangulation of Liberals in inner-city seats, including Kooyong (held by the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg), and Goldstein (held by Tim Wilson), is part of a deliberate plot among the hard right of the Liberal Party. Perhaps even one sanctioned by the Prime Minister himself, given that he has played a personal role in preselections (if mostly in NSW) and that he is an inveterate and consummate factional player, almost always with hidden agendas. Thus, some speculate, he may have realised that Deves was entirely unelectable in Warringah, but that her opinions might send a message out to voters in outer-suburban seats about where Morrison really stands on such issues.
Given the general ineptness with which Morrison and his faction manages even straightforward programs, or his performance during the bitter fights over preselections in NSW, the idea of a conspiracy may seem far-fetched. But it is certainly notable that some of the factional strategists are more focused on the factional consequences of some contests than the general outcomes.
Writing in The Australian on Thursday, Peta Credlin, for example, commented that Morrison had shifted on emission cuts after the 2019 election. Cuts they had said "were going to be economy-wrecking before the election became all but essential after the election as the Coalition embraced Labor's long-term goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 and shifted left.
"Whether the internal clout of senior ministers such as Frydenberg (and his tendency to see almost everything through the prism of Kooyong) were drivers here or not, this move left disregards the reality that it's outer suburban and regional seats that make or break government, not electorates insulated by privilege.
"Or, in other words, to save Koyoong (or Goldstein or North Sydney) the Coalition could end up losing government."
I doubt that Morrison will lose office primarily on that account. But the question Credlin, once Tony Abbott's chief adviser when he was prime minister, is inviting is whether the Liberals might be better off losing its inner-city moderates, including Frydenberg, so as to preserve more seats in the suburbs and the regions.
From the point of view of a Credlin, or a Dutton, that could serve a serendipitous purpose of removing Frydenberg from leadership calculations once a defeated Liberal party was gathering to vote for who would be leader of the opposition. Removing because he wasn't there.
The fact that senior party figures are thinking aloud about such matters - or contemplating the inevitability that Morrison will lose the Liberal leadership if the government loses the election - does not necessarily mean that ministers are actively sabotaging the campaigns of potential rivals. In present circumstances, people like Frydenberg, Wilson and Sharma, are probably doing enough damage by themselves.
Even before one considers the nature of the electorates, or the calibre of the various candidates, the fact is that the government has been on the nose for some time. The polls suggest a substantial swing against it. Good campaigning can, to a degree, insulate against the swing, but even incredibly good candidates lose their seats on a change of government.
Frydenberg is pouring campaign money - and, less properly - government funding into his electorate. But his opponent, Dr Monique Ryan, is an outstanding candidate and is campaigning strongly. Like the teal role model, Cathy McGowan (and her successor, Helen Haines) in Indi and Zali Steggall, the woman who defeated Abbott in Warringah, she has invested her campaign with the trappings of a grand crusade - a moral one at that. Her volunteers - in teal T-shirts and vast number - seem far more "grassroots", sincere and dedicated than the surlier, if professional, Frydenberg campaign.
Moreover, Frydenberg has baggage. As Treasurer and deputy party leader, he cannot diffidently separate himself from government decisions or Morrison, or hint that he fought a strong but unavailing campaign against some particular policy. His vulnerability extends particularly to his handout of nearly $40 billion on application to big and small businesses, without making any provision for recovering money for which the applicants were not eligible. That is perhaps the most epic mismanagement of public money over Australian federation, and all by itself overcomes any credit Frydenberg or the government is due for its initial economic response to the pandemic.
That it sometimes seems that ACT Labor MP Andrew Leigh is the only one doing any campaigning on the point says more about Labor's eccentric strategy and tactics than the importance of the matter.
Frydenberg's performance - he has yet to admit any fault - and his silence of other issues of good governance raise issues about his fitness for office. It certainly doesn't suggest leadership qualities, strong moral base or instinct for good public stewardship.
Frydenberg also seems to be particularly unpopular with some Victorians, probably including folk from Kooyong, for his sneers about and criticism of the Labor Premier, Dictator Dan Andrews, over lockdowns at the height of the pre-vaccination pandemic.
It was never entirely clear whether Morrison and Frydenberg swallowed the news.com.au Kool-aid over the need to prioritise economic recovery over the health response, or whether it was the other way around. What was clear was that both seriously misunderstood public opinion. In almost inciting popular rebellion, they seemed to assume that the population was on side. In fact, the popularity of the Premier increased throughout the campaign, as did the popularity of other state or territory leaders taking strong stands to protect their populations from disease.
It became obvious too that one cannot have sustained economic recovery until one has cracked the back of the pandemic, a problem that came to haunt the popularity of NSW, the minimal-response state whose performance Morrison and Frydenberg kept championing. Frydenberg did himself no favours by treating his own state less favourably than NSW. That he has followed the Morrison technique of never apologising, never explaining, and only resolutely looking forward does not help.
Both general and electorate polling suggest that Frydenberg (and Wilson) are behind their competitors, and that their campaigning efforts have not improved their situation. Indeed, it may be making things worse. Frydenberg's need to focus on his own seat has handicapped his capacity to campaign around the rest of Australia. That's an especial problem because Morrison's own unpopularity, in various states or in various types of electorates has made some candidates reluctant to have him by their side - sometimes even reluctant to associate themselves with the Coalition. That has not stopped Morrison's relentless marketing. Nor has it given him any sense of restraint about throwing public money at any group or sector that could be open to persuasion. He has three weeks to turn things about, but, as things stand, the mere fact that people are discussing the potential defeat of Frydenberg in a once-blue-ribbon seat suggest the cause is failing badly.
Whatever happens, the election of teal independents cannot help the Liberals form a government, even if all of them decide to give broad support to the Coalition other than on the environment, corruption and better governance (especially under a different Coalition leader). Every seat the teal independents gain is one the Coalition has lost. Extra teal seats, without seats taken from Labor, are unlikely to add up to 76 - the minimum a government would need.
In that sense Morrison's primary task is to win more seats from the Labor Party than he loses. That he will lose some - probably in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and NSW - seems certain. In recent times, the Liberals have become better than Labor with marginal-seat strategies - where, (as in the US, by getting the Electoral College arithmetic right) one can snatch victory even after failing to get a majority of the popular vote.
But the fact that the campaign so far does not appear to have much changed the position suggests the need for divine intervention.
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Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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