‘We’ve become the party of the landlord’: Tony Barry’s hard truths for the Liberals

Former Liberal strategist Tony Barry says his party has become the party of landlords and must embark on economic reform on a scale not seen since last century to make housing attainable if it is to be politically viable.

In a speech in Adelaide, where he began his career in politics working for former defence minister Christopher Pyne, Barry will tell the South Australian Liberal Network the party has failed to grow its support base to reflect the country’s “changing attitudes and experiences” and it is now mostly male, non-migrant home owners.

Former Liberal strategist Tony Barry says the nation has dramatically changed since John Howard’s four terms in power and is now socially progressive but economically anxious.

Simon Schluter

Barry, a director at Melbourne-based apolitical research firm RedBridge Group, warns electoral fragmentation has allowed a rise in fringe political parties campaigning on single issues, making governing and meaningful reform even harder for both Labor and the Coalition.

And he will warn his own party against believing a “messiah” leader will save it from the electoral wilderness, arguing that the nation has dramatically changed since John Howard’s four terms in power and is now socially progressive but economically anxious.

“This represents an enormous challenge for the Liberal Party,” he will say, according to a copy of his speech seen by this masthead.

“If we can’t replace this cohort of people who have historically voted for us and have since abandoned us for Labor, minor parties and independents, and if people do not organically become more conservative in their disposition, we can logically only be looking towards a bigger future problem than we already have.”

The Coalition suffered a 5.7 per cent fall in its primary vote at the May federal election, with the Liberal Party losing a string of metropolitan seats to Labor, the Greens and teal independents.

An internal post-election review found former prime minister Scott Morrison and the party were considered “out of touch” by voters, contributing to the worst Liberal poll result since 1946.

Barry says since 2012, the proportion of Baby Boomers on the electoral roll in SA has fallen from 59 per cent to just 43 per cent while Millennials now make up a third of voters.

The Liberals can no longer internalise the “orthodoxy” of ceding younger votes in exchange for older ones.

“Unfortunately for both major parties, those voters have grown up, and they’re taking longer to reach the sort of milestones that have historically led to more conservative voting patterns,” he will say. “They’re starting families later, and at a time when it’s increasingly difficult for them to enter the property market.”

Barry, also a former deputy state director for the Liberals in Victoria and press secretary to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, says his research has shown the typical Liberal voter to be a “male, non-migrant asset owner over the age of 50”, meaning the party had lost renters, under-50s and the tertiary-educated.

He says Labor’s base is mostly higher-educated voters and migrants but that it is losing renters and the precariat class to minor parties and independents.

He will also warn that alongside shifting demographics, voters’ cultural identification is becoming more baked-in, fuelling a nation of smaller and smaller tribes in Australian politics.

“Political ‘debate’ is no longer an exchange of ideas, it’s two sides making declarative statements,” he will say.

“You either support the Indigenous Voice to parliament; or you’re a racist. You’re either opposed to a clean energy transition that uses gas; or you’re a climate change denier. You’re either for keeping the date for Australia Day; or you’re un-Australian.”

Barry says this new tribalism is fertile ground for the political fringe that can hold mainstream governments hostage on singular policy issues.

“This makes it even harder for the major parties to compete for primary vote share in an environment where the minors and independents are not only growing as a political force, but also cannibalising our ability to communicate nuanced positions to a broad constituency of voters,” he will say.

But he says the major parties are also culpable, pointing to Morrison’s backing of a campaign to ban transgender athletes from women’s sports in the election lead-up as an example of a minority grouping within the Liberals trying to define the broader movement by a single issue that mattered little to the average Australian.

He says to win again, the Liberals need to pitch bold economic reform that will make housing attainable, which he describes as the “new political fault line” in politics because of the way the current tax system is structured, allowing wealth to accumulate with the already asset-rich.

“As the wealthy Boomer+ cohort passes on inheritances to their children and grandchildren, we are going to see an unprecedented transfer of unearned and untaxed wealth,” he will say, warning that the effect would “entrench generational wealth in this country”.

“This is an economic and moral challenge that we must address.

“We’ve become the party of the landlord and not the aspirational class that we were initially designed to represent.”

If the Liberals are smart, he says, they can own the economy again but it will require the ambition and ability to sell wholesale economic reform not seen since 1999.

( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

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