It takes a particular amount of arrogance for any member of the Canberra Liberals to look at the recent defeat of Zed Seselja and think 'I could have done it better'. It takes astonishing ignorance of ACT politics to believe that Zed's loss means future success for our territory party. Yet, with the finalisation of the Senate result on Tuesday morning, these lines have already started from the usual suspects in our party's ranks.
At every local branch meeting, it's always the same. The same few, but loud, voices of dissent who (almost a decade later) still feel resentful that the party overwhelming chose a different direction in 2013. These voices praise the gospel of moderatism as the message needed for the salvation of the Canberra Liberals. They decree, the Canberra Liberals would have won if we had a more progressive federal candidate!
I do pause and wonder how well that advice would have worked.
I don't suppose other fallen comrades like Trevor Evans, Julian Simmonds, Trent Zimmerman, Dave Sharma and Tim Wilson missed the salvific moderate memo?
Even at a state level, the hard moderate gospel was trialled in South Australia. Internally, former Liberal premier Steven Marshall was touted as the poster boy for the modern Liberal. He infamously barred conservatives from his cabinet and made unbelievably progressive social reforms during his tenure. However, less than a term later, Labor Right's Peter Malinauskas romped the party back into power. In a 2011 interview, Malinauskas stated that his socially conservative views almost stopped him from joining the Labor movement. At the 2022 election, Malinauskas presented himself as a strong family man; he wanted to bring back the Adelaide 500 Supercars race and less than 24 hours into the job, flagged a potential purge of the public service. Perhaps Malinauskas would have secured a greater majority if only he had moved further to the left?
The truth of the matter is, after nine years in government, another Coalition term was always going to be a tough ask. Zed Seselja was merely one of approximately 25 federal Coalition members to fall victim of a nationwide 5.7 per cent swing against the Liberal Party. Zed closely followed this trend with a 7.5 per cent swing against his primary vote. In the lower house, blue ribbon seats dropped like flies. Seats like Mackellar, Curtin, North Sydney, Goldstein and Kooyong were all seats which have effectively been solely Liberal since their formation. These seats collectively saw an average swing against them of 12.7 per cent.
With Curtin and Mackellar reaching a whopping 15.6 per cent. What's more, our Canberra Liberals house candidates also fell backwards. We tracked so far back in the seat of Canberra that it is now two-party preferred between Labor and the Greens. The Liberal candidate for Canberra, Slade Minson, was by no means a scary conservative. Likewise, across every state (except for Tasmania), the Liberal Party saw swings against us in the Senate, with Western Australia taking the cake at a 9.2 per cent swing.
Further still, like other seats attacked by a strong teal and Climate 200 independent campaign, we faced an independent with almost double the funding. This candidate had significant numbers of volunteers travel from interstate and possessed universal name recognition. When former treasurer Josh Frydenberg was able to fall victim to the teal wave, it's really no surprise that the ACT could not survive it either.
The 2022 federal election was not a referendum on Zed. Since Zed's initial election to the Legislative Assembly in 2004, he has never shied away from his personal conservative views in the public space. It would be a mistake to say that after 18 years as an elected member, it was only in 2022 that these views were the cause of his defeat. Certainly, it was in 2018 (merely months before the 2019 federal election) that Zed voted against territory rights yet was still elected. Zed's values did not change between 2004 and 2022. What changed was the whole Liberal party's brand; harmed through mandates, interstate border controls and net zero.
At odds with their cries, Zed has among the strongest track records of success in the ACT. They do not seem to remember that it was opposition leader Zed Seselja who, in the 2012 territory election, almost pulled the Canberra Liberals out of their political grave. Zed defeated Katy Gallagher in the popular vote. The Canberra Liberals parred with Labor, each winning eight seats; only defeated by Labor's partnering with the one Green to win victory.
What's more, there seems to be no appreciation from these individuals of the irony that they lost dramatically in 2001; with no less than a 14 per cent swing against them. That was long before Zed's initial 2004 election, and long before 'Zed's Conservatism' could be blamed for any defeat.
For the last nine years Zed has faithfully served the values of the Canberra Liberals membership in federal politics, and for nine years prior in local politics. More broadly, one-fourth of Canberrans still wanted Zed's voice in the Senate. With five federal ACT seats absent of any Liberal voice, almost 80,000 Canberrans are now without representation.
There is much reflection for the Canberra Liberals to do in the wake of Zed's loss, but we can't allow for the wrong answers to dominate discussion.
The Canberra Liberals are worse off without Zed, and so too is the ACT.
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