Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has offered enthusiastic bipartisan support on submarines, and the budget cuts that will be necessary to fund them – future budget cuts which should be a cause of some dread, but that’s a subject for another day.
Such ardent togetherness, such a shared sense of mission, is so rare in our politics, and it’s a shame Dutton can’t muster it when it comes to Liberal support for the Voice. But it was the most enthusiastic he had been in a while – talking about the submarines. A former defence minister and home affairs minister, Dutton was in his comfort zone. Military hardware, he could do.
Another day, and apropos a different war, deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley was back where the votes are, for the Liberal party – talking about women. In the context of the so-called superannuation wars, Ley gave a speech in late February to a Liberal business breakfast in Perth, where she talked up the Coalition’s expansion of the superannuation early-withdrawal policy it took to the 2022 election. She said early super withdrawals could be used to benefit a cohort of older women impoverished by divorce and family violence.
“Let’s look, for example, at a 58-year-old woman who has been the victim of domestic violence, who has sacrificed her career to build her family, who knows she is facing significant upheaval when she leaves a violent husband,” Ley said. “Imagine how many women would be economically empowered, how many would be able to secure their financial independence for life, if we took an expanded version of the last election’s Super Home Buyer Scheme to the next election.”
Putting aside the merits of the policy (superannuation and its purpose will be the defining economic battle of this term of parliament, so we are going to hear plenty more about it), the speech was remarkable because it was the first time I can remember the Liberals speaking directly to women since the election.
That was the election they lost, in no small part because the Liberal brand had become so unappealing to women, in particular professional women who identified with the teal independents far more than they did with the “pale-male” Liberal candidates in the inner-urban seats.
According to Australian Financial Review, half a million female professionals have been added to the electoral roll since 2015, and they now account for about two million voters. The much-vaunted male tradie vote accounts for about 1.5 million and has not changed over the same period.
If it makes them feel any better, the Conservatives in Britain face a similar problem.
Professional and other working women now face a set of pressures that is unprecedented in history. They want their experience reflected in politics, and understood by their politicians. Writing in the New Statesman, Eliza Filby called these (British) women “prosecco mums” – a political version of the meme-able “wine mummy”, whose deep burnout and despair is masked by her consumption of alcohol and her self-deprecating jokes about that consumption.
“Prosecco Mum may not be overtly political but she is becoming more and more politicised,” Filby wrote. “She is exhausted by a flexible working model that on the surface appears more adaptable to mothering but in reality stretches her to breaking point.”
In the past week, Ley finished her “listening tour” of Australia. She had promised following the election that she would travel the nation talking to women about what they wanted from the Liberals. It’s unclear why the deputy has done this and not Dutton, as party leader. But still, Ley has taken the job seriously. She spoke to small businesswomen, women’s legal organisations and roundtables of young women.
No word on whether sparkling wine was served. But whatever you call the cohort, the Liberals’ challenge is the same as in other conservative parties of the West, where women are moving to the left more and more over time. This is an entrenched trend which scholars believe is linked to higher levels of education among women (university-educated people tend to be more likely to vote left).
In speaking to women all over the country, Ley has learned that the Liberals have a brand problem, although we knew that already.
Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, told the National Press Club following the 2022 election that two things came up again and again in Labor focus groups on the matter of Liberals and women. The first was that former prime minister Scott Morrison only considered “women’s issues” in reference to his own wife and daughters, and the second was the time Morrison said the women who marched on Parliament House in 2021 were lucky not to be met with bullets. Two years on, that comment has not lost its power to astound.
Apart from a brand problem, the Liberals also have a female-policy problem – they need initiatives that resonate with professional women in particular. They will focus on superannuation, and the stage three tax cuts, which Labor promised to deliver but seems to be prevaricating on. At the Perth business breakfast, Ley said “many low-paid workers in casualised industries, predominantly female by the way, stand to lose the most” if the tax cuts are abandoned.
The Liberals must also change the way they speak about the teal candidates. Following the election, Scott Morrison lashed the teals for running “very vicious and very brutal campaigns” against his MPs. Really? Vicious and brutal in the sense that they won?
Where Morrison saw monsters, just about everyone else – particularly female voters – saw intelligent women frustrated by the government’s intransigence on climate, women’s issues and integrity. Women who didn’t like to be patronised. Women like themselves.
The Liberals’ attitude to the teals is now markedly different – they are treated as “respected competition”, I am told. The Liberal line against the teals will be that they are accomplished, articulate and nice, but ultimately, they have little power or leverage in parliament. If you elect a teal, you will get a Labor government which will threaten your super and roll back your tax cuts.
Will this be enough to win back female voters? Not, I would say, if Dutton doesn’t start appealing to those voters directly, instead of leaving it to his deputy.
Given his political baggage as a hardman, it will be hard for Dutton to remodel the Liberal brand in the eyes of women, even harder because he has limited control over the preselection process, which still throws up plenty of bonkers male candidates who are elevated over what Tony Abbott liked to call “high-calibre women”.
Dutton managed to get one such woman – barrister Roshena Campbell – preselected as the Liberal candidate for the Aston byelection on April 1. It’s a good start, but a small one, and there’s a mountain to climb.
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