In the Media

Opinion Piece - For chastened Liberals, path to recovery is clear.



7 April 2023


Voters have sent a loud message via the ballot box at consecutive federal and state elections and again at the Aston by-election last weekend. Put simply, the message delivered was that a majority of the community does not think the Liberal Party reflects their values or their aspirations.

To them, there is a vast chasm between what the Liberal Party is seen to focus on and the issues that matter. The once-in-a-century Aston judgment has made it clear how big that gulf now is.

Such an unmistakeable message must be the catalyst for change. The Liberal Party does not have time to waste. We need to get off the mat, accept voters’ judgment that we have been getting it wrong, and change.

Sadly, the need for change has been a sticking point inside the Liberal Party. These reactionary voices think the path to electoral salvation lies in focusing on ideological culture war issues and shouty positions that are the preserve of a dwindling fringe. They think our failure has been not championing those issues loudly enough.

The laws of politics, especially when voting is compulsory, are not difficult to follow. It doesn’t matter how loudly and passionately you shout if the majority disagrees with you and sees your cause as outside the mainstream.

One of the genuine structural challenges for the Liberal Party over recent electoral cycles has been that voters are not prioritising our core strength, economic management. That may change as cost-of-living pressures build but we can’t afford to pin all our hopes on that when incumbent Labor governments are focusing the electorate away from their failures and on to social issues.

Political parties don’t get to decide which issues matter to voters, and oppositions rarely frame the debate. If we want to win again, we must be prepared to engage on social issues without being framed as chief villain.

We have to demonstrate why a party that has respect for the individual as a foundational principle is the right choice for those experiencing disadvantage and discrimination.

As Victorian Liberal leader John Pesutto has made clear, we need to be an inclusive party for all Australians, regardless of your race, religion, gender or sexual preference.

We need to be a voice for everyone, particularly young people who believe correctly that climate change is a major issue and transgender people are real people who deserve equal respect. We need to be a party of the mainstream.

We should know by now how potent these questions of values are for voters, because our traditional heartland has been eroded by alternative candidates who won by offering a value proposition over policy prescription. Not surprisingly, many of these candidates are women who are speaking to issues important to women.

The Liberal Party needs to accept that modern voters are more sophisticated and prioritise value alignment in a way we haven’t seen before. And here is the light-bulb moment for the Liberal Party: value alignment is now the pathway to building trust among an increasingly jaded electorate.

Without passing the increasingly important value test, modern voters, especially in the city, will not be open to policy offerings.

Over the past six months, the federal party watched the Victorian and NSW elections and mistakenly believed they were low-watermark results. They are not. In both elections, the Liberal Party held electorates in the cities against the teals; a sign of being closer to the mainstream. The Aston by-election has shown that the federal party shouldn’t make that assumption about where it sits.

The two state results, which were notably similar, have shown the pathway for the party. But after our opponents have spent years hardening our position as antagonists, it will take a long time to build back trust. Change needs to start today, and that realignment will be made harder if Liberal Party figures sidle up to protest groups or fringe activists.

It is a virtue that the Liberal Party is a broad church. But serious Liberals need to accept that the church can no longer extend partyroom membership privileges without certain obligations. When you are elected to parliament, you give up your right to be an activist. You can’t be both, and politics is a team game.

The haze of recent electoral pain is clouding the pathway for some Liberals to see how we can restore trust with the electorate, but the pathway is clear. We need to be a party focused on the issues important to Australians regardless of who they are or where they are from. A party whose values are mainstream.