The federal parliamentary party is divided, disordered, dystopian. The Prime Minister’s leadership lacks clear purpose and vision. Budget repair isn’t even being given lip service. The citizenship fiasco has not only undermined the Coalition government’s shaky majority, but highlighted the lack of political nous in the Turnbull government.
At state level where Liberals are in government, quality is mediocre. In NSW, the Berejiklian government has gone to the greyhounds, the party is riven by factionalism, and attempts to democratise its processes are being stymied by the ‘factional warlords’. In Tasmania, the Hodgman government will struggle to retain majority government, and the doddery Barnett government in WA deserved defeat last March. Where in opposition, in no case has performance on policy and politics been solid enough to reclaim the Treasury benches, even against highly-beatable Labor opponents. Last weekend, the Queensland LNP went backwards against an untalented, incompetent, union-dominated Labor regime.
Everywhere, parliamentary Liberal parties suffer from shallow talent pools, with too many political careerists and factional hacks taking winnable seats. No wonder the electorate’s beguiled by populist, don’t-worry-how-we’ll-pay-for-it, feel-good pitches from Labor, One Nation and the Greens – and, for that matter, the Nationals. Lacking convincing centre-right values and programmes, Liberals struggle to counter such Panglossian opponents.
What’s more, if the Liberals lose the next federal election, the damage of the 2015 leadership coup, its causes and consequences is so great the party itself may fragment, with political hyenas including Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation scavenging disillusioned Liberal members, donors and voters. It will be as bad, if not worse, than the great ALP-DLP split of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Liberal party itself may not survive. What happened in Queensland last Saturday, where One Nation fractured the centre-right vote, will be normal: a generation’s political hegemony is being handed to the Left on a plate, yet parliamentary and organisational Liberal bigwigs too often channel King Canute.
The Victorian Liberal party is a case study. Struggling to defend a swag of federal seats, and contesting a feasibly-winnable state election within a year, it is in a pitched legal battle with the conservative Cormack Foundation for control of a $70 million investment pool, a vital income stream sustaining the party since the fundraising foundation was established in the late 1980s.
The Cormack board’s position: get your governance house in order and we will come again to the, ahem, party. A major political party these days is big business: the days of volunteer-dependent management and governance structures better suited to running church fetes and jumble sales are gone. If that’s the Cormack board’s message to Liberal leaders, it needs heeding.
Then there’s the announcement that in next year’s Victorian election the Liberals will not run candidates in inner Melbourne seats where the Greens threaten Labor’s. The logic is November’s Northcote by-election, where the Greens not only snatched the seat but thumped Labor, presages a Left battle royal in Melbourne next year, and to save the Andrews government Labor must divert resources from other marginals and seats they hope to take off the Liberals.
In the same vein, some Victorian Liberals were keen to do a preference deal with the Greens in last year’s federal election, and would have had the Prime Minister not intervened. Tactically, leaving Labor and the Greens to fight it out without Liberal preferences is clever. Strategically, however, it creates long-term risks for the Liberal brand.
The Liberal party is one of only two viable parties of government. It offers voters a centre-right choice; Labor a centre-left. For a party of government to deny even some voters that choice in a general election – even in seats it has no hope of winning – is wrong.
Given this status and despite the expense, both the Liberals and Labor have a democratic duty to field candidates in every seat not held by them or, in the Liberals’ case, their Nationals coalition partner. If they want to claim they govern for all, they can’t pick and choose which seats they contest.
If that’s not persuasive enough, there’s the self-interest of securing strong upper house votes for the wider cause. Running candidates in Dead Red or Deep Blue seats helps the other party maximise its upper house support by at least having a visible presence on the ground. With the Senate and state upper houses Balkanised by the Greens and self-interested cross-benches, every primary Liberal vote counts. By-passing unwinnable seats doesn’t help.
And, if Victorian Liberal strategists know their history, they should heed the fate of their British namesakes.
Having dominated nineteenth-century politics, in 1906 Britain’s Liberal party won a whopping electoral victory but gave fledgling Labour a huge leg-up by not contesting some seats, thinking this would strengthen them and wedge the Conservatives for a generation. Instead, within twenty-five years Labour devoured the Liberals, and the Tories were firmly established as the natural party of British government. Is that what we want for the watermelon Greens?
Victoria is just one case study: all Liberal state divisions and the federal organisation are struggling under the weight of outdated structures, parliamentary mediocrity and voter rejection. There is too much in-fighting and insiders playing factional and personal power games as if still in student politics, and too little accountability to loyal members, supporters and the public.
Meanwhile, implementing cherished Liberal values of smaller government, responsibility and prudence is falling by the wayside. Liberal divisions not getting their own houses in order merely gives Labor another fertile line of attack, and angry and disillusioned natural supporters less reason to vote Liberal. When the darkness of political night threatens the Liberal party as we know it, this is the last thing it can afford.
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