Saturday was a rough day for the Liberal Party in Western Australia. We knew it wasn’t going to be good, but the extent of the carnage seems to have surprised a lot of people. Safe blue-ribbon Liberal seats fell to Labor for the first time.
And the blood-letting has started. Fingers are being pointed. Grievances are being aired. Cover is being taken.
And there is no one source of blame. There are many. Some are recent and some are the consequence of ongoing organizational weakness. The irresistible temptation is to blame COVID19 for it all and move on. To say that all opposition parties around the country have suffered election defeats and that the Liberals were pushing the proverbial uphill.
Which, to a large extent, they were.
But that isn’t the end of the story. No doubt COVID19 Stockholm syndrome contributed to the swing against the WA Liberals but to blame that alone, while convenient, is also naive and disingenuous. What that general political climate did do was act to expose existing weaknesses in the Liberals. At a parliamentary level, many elected members failed to adequately fundraise, develop policies and engage with their electorate throughout the duration of the last term. Changing leaders on multiple occasions certainly didn’t help, and in the lead up to the election, the party struggled to sell the story of the leader, Zak Kirkup. The nature, scope and depth of various headline policies, in particular the green energy policy, deterred traditional Liberal voters — as did a perception that candidates from religious backgrounds failed to appeal to the mainstream voters. Ultimately, there were serious concerns in the electorate that the Liberal Party did not offer a viable alternative government.
The flip side for the government was that its perceived handling of COVID19 meant it was broadly forgiven for failures which would have been, in any other garden-variety election, big election issues: ballooning ambulance ramping, close relationships with property developers, and significant failures of ministers over the term of government — think of its backflips on shutting down School of The Air services and the Wheatbelt residential school, Moora College, embarrassment over prisoners escaping correctional facilities, and the very public blue with the Town of Cambridge that saw the courts deal the Local Government Minister a bloody nose after unprecedented attempts at intervention in council affairs. Despite these obvious failures of governance, the electorate just wasn’t interested in listening to any criticism of the McGowan government regardless of how legitimate it was.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention the role of the WA media in this election campaign. Not since the heady Burke days has the media been such a sycophantic cheerleader for one side of politics. In the last 12 months, the media in WA has shone the spotlight on every Liberal party wrinkle while doing its utmost to ignore or diminish the failings of this Labor government. They don’t seem to have got the memo that the media’s job is to hold the government to account. Now to wait and see how many journalists from the West end up with cushy media relations jobs in this government.
Now I’ve had my whinge, I should proffer solutions.
Well, on a policy front we need to get back to Liberal Party bread and butter policy: reduction of red tape, state tax reform, building infrastructure, encouraging a strong environment for business and the like. On an organisational front, we need to reengage with small business and traditional Liberal party voters, invite them back into the fold, and give them reason to trust us again. On the candidacy front, the need to improve our preselection and vetting processes, and where possible, preselect candidates earlier. On the parliamentary front, we need our remaining members to work as hard as possible to hold the government to account and bring governmental failures to the attention of the electorate. These are but a few high-level examples. But unless there is effective and transparent internal reform, it will be almost impossible to change the fundamental operation or perception of the party. In that shadow, it will continue to struggle to attract members and raise funds. Unless we want to spend an aeon in opposition, the Liberal party needs to ensure it grows into a credible alternative government rather than wait for the current government to crumble from within.
Anyway, as it currently stands, the Liberal Party in WA is all but razed to the ground. And any rebuild will require courage, introspection, asking uncomfortable questions, the uncomfortable taking of responsibility, and the implementation of uncomfortable change.
The one thing I do know is this: ash neutralizes soil.
Caroline Di Russo is a lawyer, businesswomen and unrepentant nerd.
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