Originally published in The Daily Telegraph
It always hurts to lose, especially to a seemingly inferior opponent. Yet no government lasts forever and the challenge for Liberals and Nationals is to remember the successes of the Morrison government while working diligently to become a more effective political movement. A new government that’s limped into office with under a third of the primary vote could be quite vulnerable next time, especially if it mishandles precarious economic and security circumstances, as long as the Coalition stays united and doesn’t lose its nerve. The Liberal fightback should start by remembering our enduring strengths as a party as well as by absorbing the right lessons from this one loss.
On its record, the Coalition didn’t deserve to be bundled out of office, especially by a Labor Party at pains to stress during the campaign where it agreed rather than disagreed with the government; and the Treasurer who’d navigated us so well through the pandemic certainly should never have lost his seat. Still, the voters have spoken; their verdict must be respected; and for our country’s sake we must hope that the new government succeeds.
Defeat always prompts anxieties that our party might somehow be out-of-step with popular feeling on climate change, for instance, or on identity issues. And in the seats we lost on the weekend, perhaps we were. Yet between the Coalition and the ALP, this wasn’t actually a climate change election. Those that were, 2010, 2013, and 2019 had a very different outcome. The question is: do we win so-called teal seats back by trying to be even more zealous on climate; or by finding other issues on which to appeal? And is our long-term political future best secured by targeting the generally well-off voters of places like Vaucluse and Toorak; or by helping the contemporary version of Menzies’ forgotten people who are largely in the outer-suburbs and regions?
The loss of a swag of once blue-ribbon Liberal seats is just a dramatic illustration of the long-term trend of better-off people to vote left. Less noticed, as yet, has been the weekend’s declining margins for Labor in “struggle street”. Before leaping to the conclusion that the Libs should move further left, it’s also worth noting that the National Party held all its seats and that the Coalition did best in Queensland and Tasmania, where the state party has tended to be least “woke”. Of course, it would be good to win back the six seats that have just gone “teal”, but it would be wrong to focus on them to the exclusion of the nine seats lost to Labor; and on the mass of outer-metro seats generally where government is won or lost. My instinct is that the teal seats will return to the Liberal fold when a Labor government is seriously mismanaging the economy, not when the Liberal Party goes green.
Panic over just one loss is the last thing needed in a party that’s been in federal office for two thirds of the post war era. Or voter-repelling arguments over whether to be more “moderate” or more “conservative” as the Liberal Party has always been a bit of both. We’re “liberal” in supporting lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom; “conservative” in supporting small business, the family, and institutions that have stood the test of time; and above all, patriotic in backing Australia as still the best country in the world and wanting it to stay that way.
For oppositions in their first year or so, the fewer headlines they generate the better. Let the focus be on the new government which will inevitably make plenty of mistakes. The job of new oppositions is to oppose, not everything, but anything that’s seriously against the national interest because politics always involves a contest. It should start as it means to continue by not giving-in to political correctness in a bid to appease those who are unlikely ever to vote for us. Apart from holding the new government to account, the main job of new oppositions is to renew their party organisation with more members, revitalised campaign teams, and potential candidates that can appeal to a diverse electorate.
It was always going to be hard for the Morrison government to win a fourth term, especially with its signature policy – super for housing – announced so late in the campaign. It also didn’t help that the NSW party had ignored its own rules about democratic pre-selections and only put candidates into must-win seats with just eight weeks to go. It’s a truism that “oppositions don’t win elections governments lose them” but the next successful opposition will the one that creates a clear contest on the most favourable terms.