Liberals on the nose well beyond ‘goat’s cheese curtain’

Was the swing in the Aston byelection a movement to Labor or a swing away from the Liberals?

There is no doubt that voting on Saturday was at least in part a tick of approval for Labor’s leadership. Despite being unpopular as an opposition leader, Albanese as prime minister is currently riding high. But the long and inexorable decline of the Liberal vote in Victoria shows the party needs to address its brand issue urgently if it is to turn around its fortunes in Melbourne.

Critics who argue the Liberal Party brand issue is restricted to inner-city seats overlook that the primary preference swing against the Liberal Party in the 2022 federal election was substantially higher in outer suburban seats such as Menzies, Monash, Aston, Casey and Dunkley than either Kooyong or Higgins. In fact, the swing was across many major metropolitan seats in 2022 – not just behind the so-called “goat’s cheese curtain”.

Sure, we lost heartland seats, but Aston confirms we are not connecting with the mortgage belt either. We are no longer appealing to middle Australia – at least not in Victoria.

No one doubts that being in opposition is tough. The job of holding the government of the day to account is core business – and it isn’t always popular. But in opposition we should do more than just disagree with the government.

Building a coherent narrative around our offering as an alternative government not only provides a vision for Australia that captures people’s imagination. It enables our supporters to become our ambassadors. If we don’t build a strong alternative vision, Australia is at risk of becoming dominated by one party and that’s not good for our democracy.

Menzies founded the Liberal Party on the premise that all administrative committees of the party would be gender equitable. That was a policy that was ahead of its time. I have long argued that we are not appealing to a large swathe of swinging voters – women aged 30 to 55.

Women’s voices have emerged from centuries in the home to be heard loud and clear across the full spectrum of the workplace. Professional women are the newest large voting group on the block – we fail to appeal to them at our peril. Dom Perrottet’s free childcare policy is likely to have at least partly prevented the expected landslide to Labor in the recent “it’s time for change” NSW state election. Voters need to believe the voice of women is heard loud and clear within the Liberal Party and then reflected in policies that appeal to them.

More than that Australians need to see that our party is broadly representative of modern, multicultural Australia. The tragedy of the Aston byelection for the Liberal Party was the failure to elect a strong, capable woman of multicultural background to the parliamentary team.

Internal critics argue that the administrative committee was to blame for not allowing the local party to preselect their own candidate. But a local preselection would have taken precious weeks away from the short five-week campaign.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton after the Liberal Party’s loss in the Aston byelection.

Penny Stephens

Post-election Labor chortled she was a “great candidate, wrong seat” which is a bit rich from them. Think Bellevue Hill-mansion owning Andrew Charlton air-dropped into Parramatta at the last federal election.

Having diversity of opinion is an underlying strength of liberalism. One of our core tenets is to enable individuals to be their best selves and live their best lives. That should be reflected in every one of our policies.

Politics is now entering a new era of voter interaction. This emerged with the internet but has been hastened by COVID. Labor has embraced a nimble and interactive way of communicating with voters which is more targeted and voter-responsive. Labor is winning the social media war with large spends and emotive messaging.

By contrast, we gather data but don’t use it wisely. Our campaigns still rely on expensive mail-out programs – they are centrally approved and less responsive to individuals’ concerns. People check their mailboxes far less regularly than their inboxes.

There is no doubt that the Liberal brand continues to attract criticism about how we are perceived by certain voting groups. Our policies should enable all Australians and not disenfranchise some.

Now is the time to do the deep value-based policy work needed to underpin the party’s platform not just for the next election but for the two to three after that. If we get the reform right on that count we can build a narrative that voters can empathise with and vote for. Our policies should resonate in Victoria as much as in Queensland, including settling differences on the clean energy transition.

That narrative includes building on the successes of the past – our strong health and economic response to COVID, our ground-breaking work on AUKUS and a program of personal income tax reform.

We shine when we champion the policies of individual self-determination, home ownership and business prosperity. We can’t allow the Labor Party to rewrite our legacy.

But above all perceptions are critical in politics. The Liberal Party needs to heed the electorate and show that it is prepared to change and embrace the issues of middle Australia. As Churchill famously said: Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Dr Katie Allen is the former federal member for Higgins.

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