Peter Dutton says that he’s determined to rebuild the Liberal Party after its weekend defeat in Aston. That’s necessary but insufficient. It needs a personality transplant too.
And it’s not as simple as replacing Dutton. He is merely the current face of a party that has chosen to make itself inherently unattractive.
Kelly O’Dwyer, then federal minister for women, explained to her Liberal colleagues in 2018 that the party was widely seen by the voters as being “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers”.
What’s changed? Today you could probably add the perception that it’s anti-transgender and anti-Indigenous as well. From being merely unattractive, the party is now on course to make itself irrelevant to contemporary Australia.
A byelection is a chance for the people to lodge a protest against a government. Instead, the people of Aston on Saturday lodged a protest against the opposition. That’s what made it so extraordinary.
Extraordinary yet, if the Liberals read their own official review of last year’s federal defeat, unsurprising: “The Coalition now holds its lowest proportion of seats as a share of the House of Representatives since the Liberal Party first ran in a federal election in 1946.”
Hammering the point home, the review authors – former federal director Brian Loughnane and sitting Victorian Senator Jane Hume – said that this was merely the latest in a continuing trend: “Many of the problems identified have been constants for a decade or more.”
And now Aston. The byelection results make it impossible for the Liberals to console themselves with any of the shallow rationalisations they’ve been telling themselves since Scott Morrison led them to disaster in May.
First, it’s clear that the problem wasn’t just Morrison. He’s gone, but the problem only gets worse.
Second, it wasn’t simply the “it’s time” problem afflicting a nine-year-old government. Because it’s no longer in government and yet the electors continue to withdraw support.
Third, the Liberals can no longer tell themselves that their problem is strictly one of teal independents taking votes from them. The teals took six traditional, wealthy Liberal seats at last year’s federal election. Hardcore right-wingers in the party consider these to be votes lost to the “left”.
But in losing Aston, the Liberals lost a middle-class, middle-income, mortgage-belt seat. The Liberals are losing not only traditional, principled, wealthy Liberals. They are losing women, young people, the cities. In other words, they are losing Australia.
But weren’t there special local factors? Yes, and most federal Liberal MPs will grasp at these to avoid serious self-examination. But the local factors cannot explain the systematic purge of the Liberals from the electoral map.
The plain truth is that an increasingly reactionary, populist, right-wing impulse grips the party. In between elections, its right-wing MPs and senators are excited to find encouragement on social media and a cheer squad in the Murdoch media. They call this micro-gratification “the base”.
The more they pursue this so-called “base”, the further they move from the macro-electorate known as contemporary Australia.
Dutton said on Sunday that the party would be true to the traditions of its founder, Bob Menzies. A senior moderate Liberal scoffed that “Menzies couldn’t get preselection in today’s Liberal party.” If it has the courage to seek a new personality, it could do much worse than consider its former one.
For Labor, the relentless self-destruction of the Liberals is an invitation for hubris. This is the Liberals’ best hope of a quick return to power – for the Albanese government to get carried away with itself.
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