One of the Liberal Party’s most senior figures is calling for urgent action to win back Australians by setting new policies on housing and climate change, while confronting dangerous perceptions that the party is intolerant, nasty and divisive.
Senator Simon Birmingham wants the Liberals to become a “party of inclusion” by ending rows over family structures and appealing to people who had turned against their movement – including women, migrants, city voters and the young.
The dire warning comes as Opposition Leader Peter Dutton convenes a meeting with federal Liberal MPs in Canberra on Wednesday to debate their stance on the Indigenous Voice, amid a growing debate about broader policies and his leadership.
Birmingham, the elected leader of the Coalition in the Senate, is seeking a rethink of their message after the party’s brutal defeat at the Aston byelection last Saturday, while fellow Liberal moderates are also calling for a halt to “crazy culture wars” and “dog whistling” on ideological fights.
“Perceptions of intolerance created by some hasn’t just cost the votes of those who feel judged, it has hurt the Liberal Party with all who reject nastiness or divisiveness,” he says, writing in this masthead today.
“We must be the party of inclusion, in which all families who contribute and aspire see relevance.”
The call comes with a personal statement from Birmingham about his own family – he is married with two children – and a circle of friends who include same-sex parents, single parents and families with complicated step-parenting arrangements.
“I love them all equally. I don’t judge them and nor do most other [or former] Liberal voters,” he writes.
The Liberals have been thrown into turmoil over their direction after voters dumped the party at the Aston byelection in suburban Melbourne, recording a swing to Labor of 6.4 per cent in two-party terms (in the latest count on Tuesday) following a swing to Labor of 7.3 per cent at the last election.
“Millennials have substituted Baby Boomers as the biggest voting demographic. Migration has turbocharged urbanisation, making our big cities even bigger. Professional women are the fastest growing segment of the workforce,” Birmingham writes.
“It’s no time to be a party struggling with women, migrants, urban or younger voters. Not if you want to win elections.”
Dutton has not signalled any new policies since the byelection or any process to discuss a change in direction, arguing that oppositions do not usually issue costed policies at this point in the parliamentary term and that voters would see his plan before the next election.
“We want to make decisions that are going to help families and small businesses, not hurt them,” Dutton said on Tuesday while campaigning in Albury with deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley.
Liberals from all sides of the party room have played down the idea of a move against Dutton’s leadership, but some have tried to spark a debate on their message to voters and their policies. Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer warned against “dog whistling” on ideology, Victorian MP and immigration spokesman Dan Tehan called for “hard policy work” and NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg criticised messages that appealed to “fringes” in society.
Asked on ABC Radio National on Tuesday whether there was a “nastiness” to the Liberal message at times, Bragg, who campaigned for marriage equality in 2017, expressed concern about the impact on the LGBTQ community and others.
“There has been a tendency on the fringes to try and Americanise some of these culture wars here in Australia, which I think has been very regrettable and has damaged particularly vulnerable communities,” he said.
“And I think that has been nasty at times. And that’s why we need to maintain our position as a mainstream political movement that is focused on the major issues facing people and not drawn into the margins on crazy culture war issues.”
With the issue of transgender rights dividing the Liberals and parts of the community, Dutton sought to balance competing views on the ABC’s program on Sunday by saying the “the debate runs two ways” but people should debate the issue with respect.
On policy, Birmingham says the Liberals have a strong track record on job creation but must do more on housing when many young people believe home ownership is out of reach.
“Reversing the decline in home ownership must be a priority for a successful society, viable economy and the Liberal Party itself,” he writes.
“This is an opportunity to re-engage with younger voters and a basis upon which to convince their parents and grandparents of economic reforms necessary to put buyer-occupiers in the pole position of policy priorities.”
He also calls for a position on climate change that accepts the scientific evidence and supports a broad consensus on government action.
“Sound conservative values should entail a firm commitment to conserving our environment,” he writes.
Dutton has stepped up his warnings about policies to act on climate change, however, by predicting the recent changes to the safeguard mechanism will threaten the cement industry, while Coalition climate spokesman Ted O’Brien said last week the changes would “decapitate” industry.
Steel giant BlueScope and explosives maker Orica backed the safeguard mechanism changes this week.
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