The end of certainty: Reeling Liberals look to rebuilding from wreckage
22nd May 2022

By Deborah Snow and James Massola

Clockwise from top: Trent Zimmerman, Tim Wilson, Jason Falinski and Dave Sharma.Credit:Kate Geraghty, Penny Stephens, Nick Moir and Edwina Pickles

Federal election 2022

On the Monday evening before the election, Jason Falinski, the federal member for the Sydney seat of Mackellar, is standing in a darkening suburban car park handing out fliers to every last straggler turning up at the local pre-poll station before it closes at 8pm.

As he’ll later tell The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, there were 127 hours of pre-poll voting in his electorate – and he was there for 124½ of them, every bit of it “trench warfare”.

Falinski’s desperate hunt for votes that night turns out to have been a harbinger of the broader existential crisis that now threatens to engulf the Liberal Party.

Independent Sophie Scamps and Liberal Jason Falinksi.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Until Saturday’s shock election result, his seat, centred on Sydney’s mostly prosperous northern beaches, would have counted as Liberal heartland. The party had held it continuously for 73 years, and his margin of 13.3 per cent from the last election would normally have been judged unassailable.

But no one knows what the new Liberal normal looks like any more. On Saturday night, Falinski was swept away by the teal independent tidal wave, succumbing to Climate 200-backed popular local independent Dr Sophie Scamps.

The seat of Mackellar joins a stunning casualty list of formerly Liberal heartland seats which have now fallen to professional women running community-backed campaigns on climate, integrity and gender equity. Their teal branding derives from independent Zali Steggall’s successful raid on Tony Abbott’s former seat of Warringah in 2019.

Allegra Spender celebrates her election win with supporters at Bondi Beach on Sunday.Credit:James Alcock

Besides Scamps, the victorious teal contingent appears to include Dr Monique Ryan in Kooyong in Victoria (who seems set to take this former Liberal jewel from the man previously seen as party heir apparent, Josh Frydenberg); former ABC foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel who has taken the Victorian seat of Goldstein from moderate Liberal MP Tim Wilson; Allegra Spender, who’s won from Dave Sharma the ultra-well-heeled seat of Wentworth (former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s onetime bastion); Kylea Tink (who boasts pink, not teal as her battle colours), who has unseated Trent Zimmerman (again a moderate Liberal) in the harbourside seat of North Sydney; and Kate Chaney, niece of onetime Liberal Senate leader Fred Chaney, who is expected to snare another Liberal prize, the seat of Curtin in WA.

These are accomplished women, Malcolm Turnbull said, that “any political party would count as an enormous plus to have among their number. The idea of saying that they are just ‘groupies’ [John Howard’s label] – what a disrespectful thing to say”.

Turnbull spoke to this masthead from New York, just an hour after Anthony Albanese’s victory speech. He says the scale of “this disaster for the Liberal Party” can’t be overstated.

“These are the seats which had not only been ultra-safe but where the party raised most of its money, where it had the most members — literally the Liberal Party bedrock,” he says.

“The message very clearly to the party now is, given these historically rolled-gold seats [have moved] to the crossbench, how does the Liberal Party ever get to form a majority in its own right? It may be that the only way they get to form a majority is by doing a deal with [what are effectively] small ‘L’ liberals on the crossbench … and a lot of people would say that’s a good thing. Because then the sort of people with the perspectives that moderates have, instead of sitting as political hostages in the Liberal party room, are on the crossbench and can actually dictate terms.”

The fracturing of the party’s vote in wealthier metropolitan electorates amounts to what La Trobe University political historian Professor Judith Brett calls a “significant class defection” from the party founded by Robert Menzies in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The federal Liberal Party faces a fundamental identity crisis. What does it stand for? Who is it appealing to? Where does its future lie? Does it (as many moderates believe it should) evolve towards becoming a more socially progressive party with strong and credible aspirations on climate and women, while returning to a more conventional small “L” liberal, free-market economic policy?

Or does its future lie with the more socially conservative outer-suburban and peri-urban electorates, wooing them with populist right-wing stances on economic and social policy?

In the immediate aftermath on Sunday morning, shell-shocked Liberals were divided about whether the party should tack further to the right or move to the centre as the rebuilding process gets under way. Few were willing at this stage to speak publicly.

Liberal campaign spokesman Senator Simon Birmingham, a South Australian moderate, told the ABC’s Insiders program the party needed to “go back and regroup around all of those who Menzies spoke about as the forgotten people and, in particular, we have lost the professionals out of the Menzian script … [especially] Australian women”.

A number of moderates privately agree with Turnbull’s assessment that “the Liberal Party base does not equal the people who hang on every word of Sky [TV] After Dark, or read the Murdoch tabloids with complete credulity. The party’s base is the people you can rely on to turn up and vote for you”.

One moderate said there needed to be an end to “Morrisonism”, which he defined as “economic populism plus culture wars”.

This MP referenced Scott Morrison’s thwarted attempt to proceed with his controversial religious discrimination bill and his captain’s pick of divisive Warringah candidate Katherine Deves. Birmingham made clear on Saturday night his view that Deves’ floridly antagonistic views on transsexuality helped drive mainstream votes away from the party.

But conservative MPs disagreed about the need to tack back towards the political centre, with one telling this masthead on election night: “Some people will say this result means we need to move to the left. That’s not right, the problem is we aren’t right enough.” A second conservative MP said voter support for the Coalition and Labor had fragmented and that as the Morrison government had become Labor-lite in its approach to policy, so had “people voted for a Labor government in the end”.

A third talked about the need for “a clear, strong, decisive right of centre position” if the party was to put itself back together.

The right’s discontent is also driven by Morrison’s failure to get back to a more traditionally Liberal economic agenda, with a smaller role for government. Across the party, there is criticism about a lack of policy vision from the outgoing prime minister.

Michael Kroger, former president of the Victorian Liberal Party and a leading force on its centre right, told the Herald and The Age: “The party needs its own visionary agenda. It cannot be a pale imitation of its opponents. Nor can it rely on dull themes like being better managers. Politics at a federal level is not about processing paper at a more competent rate than your opponents.”

Asked for his idea of a visionary agenda, Kroger nominates “examining nuclear as an option, a three-year Australia -wide royal commission into deregulation, so that this issue can be taken seriously … and, the profound law-and-order issue of the unregulated social media swamp … which is damaging the mental health of young Australians. These are all quality of life issues many of which profoundly affect the working middle class”.

In the days leading up to the poll, a range of Liberal Party MPs and officials across moderate, right and centre-right groups in the party, spoke about what would need to change if the party lost, and if its left flank started falling to the teals.

What came across strikingly was not only the visceral anger towards Morrison from the party’s moderates but animosity towards him from sections of the conservative wing, particularly in NSW.

Any strong support for the outgoing prime minister seems mainly confined to his own minor grouping (the “soft” right or “centre right”), which despite being relatively small in numbers had disproportionate influence under his leadership.

In NSW, both the right and the moderates — who at the state government level are in a reasonably well-functioning “stability pact” — were angered by Morrison’s intervention in party preselection processes through his factional ally and agent, former immigration minister Alex Hawke.

As Morrison’s proxy on the NSW party’s nomination review committee, Hawke was seen as the chief reason why a number of key preselections were delayed until just weeks out from the poll, allowing the bypassing of branch plebiscites and a top-down installation of candidates such as Deves.

Morrison’s defenders say these measures were necessary to protect some sitting MPs whose preselections would have been in jeopardy, and to ensure more female candidates. But his opponents accuse the outgoing prime minister of trying to stack more of his own numbers into the federal parliament.

The moderates have also been angered by Morrison’s failure to move on 2030 climate emissions targets, a federal ICAC, and more active promotion of gender equity as well as economic reform.

“I know a lot of the teal activists and financiers,” says one prominent party moderate. “These are liberals who haven’t left the Liberal Party — the Liberal Party has left them.”

One MP, who wished to only speak on background, said: “The style of politics that has been presented by the Liberal Party, particularly in the [Abbott and] Morrison eras, is very alpha male. It’s a brand of politics that centres around aggression, masculinity, and a disregard for science, and facts. While that brand of politics resonates with some sections of the community, it alienates other people who have traditionally voted for us.”

He says it was moderates who helped Morrison become prime minister, swinging in behind him against Peter Dutton after the toppling of Turnbull in August 2018.

“He has repaid us by marching us into the sea,” this source says, bitterly.

Frydenberg is not a moderate in a formal factional sense, but they see him as a fellow traveller and his loss is a blow to the bloc. Yet, significantly, a number of NSW moderates have said in recent days they could work with Dutton, now likely to be the next leader.

Dutton would need to start visiting schools, hospitals and childcare centres, says one. “[But] he is pragmatic, he wants to win, he is a sophisticated politician who understands there is a role for the moderates in the Liberal Party.”

Dutton has told colleagues that the new opposition would need to take a sensible, pragmatic approach to policy and that “talk of lurching to the right, making it a Trumpian-style thing [as NSW Liberal Treasurer Matt Kean has warned], is a nonsense”, according to one MP.

A second said there was no question Dutton would lead and Labor would be making a mistake if they pegged the Queenslander as “a crazy right-winger”.

“He took a neutral position on same-sex marriage, for example, unlike Scott,” the second MP said, who estimated Dutton would win support from 60 to 70 per cent of the party room.

There is anger among progressive Liberals (or modernists, as many prefer to tag themselves) at how little electoral dividend came back to them from the party’s belated efforts to move the dial on climate change.

Moderates like Sharma, Zimmerman, Falinski and federal NSW Senator Andrew Bragg, along with Frydenberg, were instrumental in pressuring Morrison to take on the Nationals and eventually secure a last-minute commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to take to the Glasgow climate conference.

But they failed to secure any advance on 2030 targets, even though the Coalition’s own projections had the country reaching a 35 per cent reduction (on 2005 levels) by 2030.

“We had always thought that a lot of issues around the teals would change as soon as the government committed to net zero,” says one federal MP. “But then it was done in such a way that it looked like we didn’t really commit.”

Another says: “He did not have the people around the cabinet table who were willing to go in hard on these issues. [Former energy minister] Angus Taylor was the spokesman, and he is one of the least convincing people in the parliament on this.”

Turnbull says Australia’s Washington and London allies were “literally appalled [by] the failure to increase the 2030 target. When you think about all the help the UK and the US have given us, particularly on AUKUS [the nuclear submarine pact], Morrison gave them nothing in return in Glasgow – nothing”.

As well as deciding on the values it will stand for in the future, the Liberal Party has to address its ossifying membership, and how to modernise its community networking and fundraising.

Some Liberals say they are determined to adapt the tactics used in the campaign by third-party activists like the Climate 200 group, which was backed by the latter’s wealthy founder, Simon Holmes a Court.

They fear, though, it could be a long, hard road to reclaim their former citadels from the newly triumphant teals.

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