After Wentworth, the Liberals are looking into the abyss

Kerryn Phelps

One of the most invaluable skills in politics is the ability to gauge the opinions and understandings of the electorate and, once this has been assessed correctly, having the ability to know when to change strategies and tack, and move with the political winds that provide the most favourable outcomes for a politician, their political party and, hopefully, the community.

Of course, changing strategies or policies midstream might be seen as political cowardice and accusations of lacking the courage of conviction, but when the winds of change are flowing so strongly against the narratives political leaders keep pushing, at what time should they stop navigating against change?

 

And, especially after a real-life litmus test in the form of a by-election – where real people cast real votes – why shouldn’t political parties take note of the results and make adjustments to maximise their best chance of re-election?

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results – it’s a quote often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein but it actually comes from Rita Mae Brown, a murder mystery novelist. However, one doesn’t need to be an Einstein to realise the Liberal National Party will need to do a complete about-face and turnaround if they are to have any chance of winning the next federal election.

But based on their responses after the Wentworth by-election, it seems the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is not for changing.

The results in Wentworth were extraordinary. The independent candidate, Kerryn Phelps, won the seat after an 18 per swing against the Liberal Party, the first time the party had ever lost the seat. Although there is a strong argument to suggest Wentworth is not representative of the broader electorate, there were clear issues that influenced the final outcome that are reflected across Australia, most notably, the effects of climate change, and a desire for policies that encourage investments in renewable energy. In exit polls on the day, almost 77 per cent of people indicated climate change and related issues strongly influenced their voting intention, while 28 per cent indicated they voted away from the Liberal Party specifically because of the lack of action on climate change.





However, as if to emphasis their tone-deafness and unwillingness to take on any considerations for change, the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg played down the significance of the by-election loss and said he didn’t intend to “reduce emissions at the expense of people’s power bills” – even though power bills are tenth on the list of domestic expenses – and Morrison’s contribution was: “on climate policy, we have got that right”. A look at the final tally of voting in Wentworth might suggest otherwise.

And to further show that he’d completely missed the message, Morrison and his Minister for Energy, Angus Taylor, are now looking at a feasibility report to offer $4 billion in government support for new coal-fired power stations, even though on April 1 2018, as Treasurer, Morrison said: “it is false to think that a new coal-fired power station will generate electricity at the same price as old coal-fired power stations. The days of subsidies in energy are over”.

The Wentworth by-election was the first political test for Scott Morrison, just eight weeks after he became Prime Minister in the leadership coup against the incumbent, Malcolm Turnbull. Although the by-election does had a number of caveats on it – it was a contest between the Liberal Party and an independent candidate, rather than Liberal–Labor; there was palpable anger about the removal of Malcolm Turnbull, and this was his seat – it was still an important by-election.

Although it’s a result unlikely to see a change of government from the floor of parliament, it has forced the Liberal National Party into a minority position and it’s only six months before a general election, to be held before May 2019.

Governments often lose by-elections and some have recovered to go on to win the subsequent general election, even after heavy losses. The Liberal Party suffered a 9.7 per cent swing in the seat of Ryan, but was re-elected seven months later. Labor suffered a 23 per cent swing in the seat of Wills in 1992, but was re-elected 11 months later (this result was voided after the victor, independent Phil Cleary, was declared invalid).

But Wentworth is Liberal Party heartland. And if the Liberal Party cannot hold onto seats such as Wentworth, what hope have they of holding 12 marginal seats, including four ultra marginal seats?

In Wentworth, Morrison’s campaigning was poor, weak and ineffective, and his personal performance was disappointing, as well as failing to manage discipline within the Liberal Party ranks during the election campaign.

His announcement to ‘consider’ moving the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was a desperate, naïve and cynical move. While this might have been relevant to the Jewish community that makes up 12 per cent of Wentworth – and even within this community, the move of the Australian embassy is a controversial topic – it’s likely the other 88 per cent of the electorate wouldn’t know much about the difference between East and West Jerusalem, or understand the complexities of the issues – but for Morrison to introduce this into the campaign was irresponsible and created angst not only for the Palestinian community, but threatened a $12 billion free trade agreement with Indonesia.

In the week before the by-election, the decision of LNP Senators to support the ‘OK to be white’ motion proposed by One Nation’s Pauline Hanson was also foolish, as was the clean-up process afterwards, where LNP Senators claimed they hadn’t read or understood the motion, and Leader of the Government in the Senate, Mathias Cormann, claimed the problem was caused by an “administrative process failure”.

Racism and incompetence, all on show within 24 hours. And, with backbenchers receiving a salary of at least $4,000 each and every week of the year, the least the electorate could expect from Senators is for them to read and understand what they’re supposed to be voting on.

In lieu of any substantial policy outcomes, and faced with the electoral annihilation at the next federal election, the Liberal National Party is now resorting to spin, mistruths, and doubling-down on its own hardline policies – after all, if it can work for US President, Donald Trump, why not try it out on the Australian public? There’s nothing else to promote, so what is there to lose?

Scott Morrison insists the 2030 emissions targets of the Paris Agreement will be met “in a canter”, even though there is now no policy structure to meet these targets, and Australia had it greatest output of greenhouse emissions in 2017, a figure which are likely to continue to rise. Australia’s greenhouse emissions are now projected to increase by 2030, rather than achieve the agreed reduction of at least 26 per cent of 2005 levels.

So what evidence did Morrison rely on when he claimed targets will be met “in a canter”? None. There is absolutely no evidence or data outlining how Australia will meet its targets under current circumstances.

In a recent interview, Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations, Kelly O’Dwyer insisted low wages growth was “a perception”, as wages had actually increased by 30 per cent over the past decade. What she failed to point out was this figure didn’t include inflation increases, and since the Liberal National Party came to office in 2013, wage growth has stagnated – wage growth was only 1.7 per cent in 2018, even though company profits grew by 22 per cent.

And here lies the problem, both for the government and the electorate. By the time evidence becomes available to refute claims from ministers, the media caravan moves onto the next agenda, and onto the next minister making further unsubstantiated claims that no one is going to bother to check in a hurry.

This is a desperate government that doesn’t have time on its side and prepared to take a scatter-gun approach to policy and public announcements. It’s chaos theory on overdrive, it’s frenetic, it’s maniacal and high-risk, but it’s also a failing strategy the government is willing to keep implementing, in the hope that eventually one issue will make traction with the public.

It’s rare for political leaders to receive advance warning for what’s likely to happen at a general election, and that’s what the Wentworth result provided to the Liberal Party – as well as an opportunity to listen, reset, adjust ideas and present more palatable and acceptable ideas to the electorate.

This should have been a time where Liberal MPs are contrite, apologetic, and discuss how the result in Wentworth suggests they need to listen to the electorate and provide policies that better reflect what the electorate is after. That would have been the wise option.

But this is a Liberal National Party lacking in wisdom.

Its preferred option is to nit-pick, seek the divisive issues that can be used to wedge the Labor Party, or gain small advantages in Parliament, by asking the umpteenth inane Dorothy Dixer question from a holder of a Liberal marginal seat or strategically position a female MP just behind Scott Morrison during Question Time, just to show the television audience at home how women-friendly the Liberal National Party really is.

And we’ll see more announcements such as the recent $51 million funding boost to Headspace for mental illness services – which failed to mention the $157 million funding cutback from the federal government just two years earlier.

On the day of the Wentworth by-election, a massive storm broke out over Sydney at about 5.30, just as the booths were accepting the final stragglers rushing to cast their vote, campaigners from all sides were beginning to dismantle their election bunting, and Australian Electoral Commission workers were preparing to close the doors and commence the counting of the votes.

It’s a cliché, but the storm was a portent of what happened to the Liberal Party that night in Wentworth. Of course, we shouldn’t be looking to the skies to predict future election prospects but the weather was symbolic of the current state of the Liberal Party.

It was a warm day in Sydney, only slightly overcast, a day that may have offered some sliver of optimism. But by the end, it was dark, gloomy and the avalanche of heavy rain caused flash floods, washing away the build-up of soot and garbage that had built up on the streets of Sydney.

There was a fresh afterglow and it felt like the city had been cleansed.

In contrast, the Liberal National Party is stale and lumbered with out-dated ideologies the electorate is tired of. It has run out of ideas and, in politics, a flailing government in a policy vacuum will always engage in the darker arts of media manipulation and skulduggery – that’s what we witnessed during the Wentworth campaign, and what we’re likely to see in the lead up to the next general election. It feels like it’s going to be a very long six months.

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Eddy Jokovich

Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.