In December 1989, the Queensland National Party government lost power after 32 years in office. As David Barnett recounts in his biography of John Howard (John Howard, Prime Minister), upon hearing this outcome, Howard remarked: ‘There is an element of democratic justice in the result.’
Howard made that comment not because he was happy at this result, but given the background of the role the Queensland Nationals played in the ‘Joh-for-Canberra’ campaign in 1987, which was an attempt to catapult then Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen into the Lodge. It caused an historic split in the Coalition, and no doubt played a role in Howard’s loss to Bob Hawke in the elections of that year.
While the outcome of the federal election last weekend will be disastrous for this country, it offers an element of democratic justice together with an opportunity for renewal, if not honest revolution.
Democratic justice has occurred not only in the case of Kristina Kenneally spectacularly being sent packing by the people of Fowler back to Scotland Island, but more so in the case of the ‘wet’ Liberals in wealthy seats that the party would normally consider safe. Losing in dramatic fashion to so-called ‘climate independents’ who are backed by billionaire Simon Holmes à Court, among others, hurts. These losses could number up to seven seats and include outgoing Treasurer and Deputy Liberal Leader Josh Frydenburg. He lost the Blue Ribbon seat of Kooyong (Sir Robert Menzies’ old seat) to one of these Teal ‘independents’, Monique Ryan. The tactic, therefore, of trying to appease those calling for climate action by signing up to Net Zero emissions by 2050 clearly failed.
Instead of fighting the election on their traditional strengths – opposition to ‘drastic climate action’, lower government spending, and fundamental freedoms – the Liberals conceded these arguments to their opponents in the name of political expediency. It became unclear exactly what the Liberals believed in.
As I wrote in my piece last month:
‘When the Liberal Party moves closer to the ALP, it dismays its best supporters without gaining any new ones. The phenomenon of a lack of political choice is being reflected in the growing support for minor parties. Many cannot, in good conscience, cast a vote for “the least unimpressive” alternative, let alone dripping-wet candidates like Dave Sharma who are seemingly ashamed of displaying the name of the party they represent.’
And so it has come to pass. The Liberals lost this election because they forgot what it means to be Liberals. As the editor in chief of this esteemed publication opined, the Liberals stood for nothing other than ‘political expediency’ and paid the price.
Scott Morrison, playing a poor game of tactics because he has no convictions, led the Coalition to its lowest primary vote in modern history. As Michael Kroger admitted on Sky News Australia’s election coverage, the Liberals in this election had no principles to argue for and defend. Simply sprouting ‘good management’ fails to excite people, especially when Morrison’s management hasn’t exactly been that good, with National Cabinet being a case in point.
However, this election loss offers an opportunity for renewal, if not revolution.
As many have argued, the Liberal Party base does not live in leafy, well-to-do, beachside areas, but in the outer suburbs of major cities and regional areas. In other words, the ‘forgotten people’ who Menzies asserted were ‘the backbone of the nation’.
‘Salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers, and so on. These are, in the political and economic sense, the middle class’, Menzies said.
By the Liberals being rid of these ‘moderates’ desperately attempting (and failing) to represent wealthy people and their luxury concerns, they can focus on rebuilding the party with true conservatives who have at heart the issues that matter to the ‘forgotten people’: ever-increasing living costs, the burden of red-tape for small businesses, the importance of families in creating a stable society, and extreme left-wing activism in schools which is leading to poor education outcomes.
Under John Howard and Tony Abbott the Liberals had policies to unite the base around shared values of social conservatives and economic dries: lower taxes, smaller government, reward for individual effort, defence of the family, and the importance of: national sovereignty, the rule of law and, above all, individual liberty.
The Liberal Party must rediscover these principles and find people prepared to argue for them – like Howard and Abbott – with conviction. This loss will hopefully ‘shock’ it into re-discovering its conservative roots, and never again forgetting about the forgotten people.
In that sense, this may well be the election the Liberals had to lose.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Curtin University.
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