Peter Dutton and his demoralized team, incredibly shaken by their Aston’s beating, say the party needs to “rebuild”.
But there are no clear foundations for this mammoth task.
Ideally, the party needs a leader who has potential appeal when, as will inevitably happen at some point, the government’s luster wears off.
Many voters, well beyond Aston, have made a decision against Dutton. The chances of changing those perceptions—despite the example of John Howard’s personal reinvention—are slim. It’s dog-with-a-bad-name syndrome.
An example. People with Chinese ancestry are an important voting group in many areas (such as Aston). It is unlikely that they will ever have a positive view of Dutton.
This is not to say that Dutton should be replaced. The alternatives (mainly Angus Taylor) were even less likely to get the party on its feet.
The best solution would be for the Liberals to have a new leader a year after the election. But even looking at a younger generation, there is no attractive candidate with broad appeal.
Dutton, who is presumably not a Morrison-esque believer in miracles, must realize that the chances of him ever becoming prime minister are minimal.
So he has little to lose by taking risks in trying to reform the party organization, in which most state departments are dysfunctional, faction-driven and committed to infighting. Ironically, the Queensland LNP is the most efficient (and effective – Queensland is the state where the coalition is strongest).
The general dysfunction has led to poor candidates, late elected candidates and poor ground games that Labor cannot match.
The malaise in the liberal organization is perhaps not the most obvious problem on the political level of the “retail”. But it is fundamental and Dutton could – if he has the determination – put his heads together. That even takes into account that in the Liberal Party, power resides in the state branches, with the federal organization relatively weak.
The most difficult thing for the liberals is to find an answer to the question: what do you stand for?
Searching for answers to this opens up a complex set of problems, including internal ideological battles and huge disparities between the constituencies it must pitch on (outer suburbs, teal urban).
In earlier years, Labor had a similar problem: caught between the traditional working-class voters in the suburbs and regions, and the inner-city progressive voters. It was a challenge right up to the Shorten years. Labor has found a good place under Anthony Albanese.
It is unlikely that the liberals will illuminate such a place before the internal culture wars between the conservatives and what is left of the moderates rage for some time.
In the meantime, policy positions need to be formulated, often amounting to responses to government policies at this stage of the election cycle.
The liberals’ continued objections have frightened off voters who have just elected a new government and want the losers to try.
That seems like an obvious message from the midterm elections.
A competent opposition mixes the positive and the negative – as the Albanians did as opposition leaders.
He also resisted (often to the taunts of the then government and sometimes the media) pressure to release the policy prematurely. For example, his crucial climate policy came very late.
But he did have a policy in place for a long time, for example in the field of childcare. The liberals should do the same, in their search for policy sweet spots.
Housing affordability is an obvious opportunity. It ticks all the boxes. It is a crucial issue in the minds of voters. It is of particular concern to the under-40 age group, who have been let down by the Liberals. It fits the values of the Liberal Party and goes straight back to Robert Menzies.
The opposition is already committed to allowing people to use part of their pension for a first home. Building around this, also with a policy that addresses the rental crisis, could produce something positive to sell in “the sensible center”.
Intensive work on a range of individual policies could be a more productive way for the Liberal Party to address its positioning problems than a general debate of conservatism versus progressivism. Having ideological debates about specific policy directions can help to reach practical approaches and compromises.
The coalition must also avoid paths with land mines. The current flirtation with nuclear energy, beloved by the Nationals, is one. The Labor ads could be written now if that were brought to the election. A smart opposition would quickly rule it out, citing economic reasons.
Behind this must be a better relationship between the Liberal Party and the Australian electorate, especially its younger section. Perhaps unsurprisingly people aged 18-24 don’t travel with the Liberals, but if they fail with the under 40 cohort, it’s disaster territory.
The baby boomers are becoming a smaller portion of the voting public. It is fruitless for the Liberals to hark back to the Howard days. And yet they give all the impression (as Scott Morrison might say in another context) of putting their heads under the doona and living in the past.
Speaking of Morrison, there is speculation that he is preparing to leave parliament. That means another midterm election. Just when the liberals thought it couldn’t get any worse.