Budget Reply: Uncertain path forward for the Liberal Party

In the midst of discussions surrounding the recent budget and the opposition’s reply, the immediate political prospects of the Liberal–National Coalition remain uncertain. While the Budget Reply speech failed to provide substantial insights into the party’s direction, it is important to note that, at this stage of the political cycle, such details are not usually expected. However, the lack of clarity regarding the Coalition’s agenda, particularly if they are to regain power, is concerning.

The announcement of Stuart Robert’s retirement from politics adds another layer of complexity to this situation. Although the date of his departure is yet to be determined, it is likely to happen sooner rather than later. Robert represents the Queensland seat of Fadden, which is a stronghold for Peter Dutton and the Liberal–National Party, holding 21 of the 30 seats in Queensland. With Fadden secured by a margin of 10.6 per cent by the L–NP, it would be difficult for them to lose the seat. Nonetheless, Robert’s retirement raises questions about the future of the party and the path they hope to carve out for themselves.

The rumours still persist regarding former leader Scott Morrison’s potential departure from politics – Morrison has taken up an advisory role with the Center for New American Security, a smaller military thinktank based in the United States. These upcoming changes in federal politics indicate a period of transition and uncertainty on the horizon.

Robert’s retirement from politics can be seen as a positive move. As one of the ministers responsible for the Robodebt scandal, along Scott Morrison, his departure presents an opportunity for the Liberal–National Party to define its future trajectory. It also signals a chance to address the controversial actions taken by Robert and Morrison in relation to Robodebt and for the types of candidates it chooses in future preselections.

Looking at the internal dynamics within the Liberal Party, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. Katherine Deves overlooked for the vacant Senate seat in NSW – reportedly, she was told not to stand – may be a sign of wiser and cooler heads prevailing. Perhaps there are some in the Liberal Party who recognise that the electoral appeal of far-right ideologies is diminishing. Losing many elections across federal, state and territory jurisdictions should be a wake-up call, urging the party to consider alternative approaches. The upcoming byelections in Fadden and Cook will be telling, as they could shape the party’s future direction.

Robert’s questionable conduct, including accumulating unjustified expenses and the Robodebt debacle, does not leave a positive legacy. His fallout with Morrison over the Robodebt issue also further isolates him in opposition, leaving him with few allies. Considering the allegations surrounding Robert and any future National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) investigations, it is likely that he will be one of the prominent figures involved – it should be noted that these are only allegations at this stage, but they suggest that Robert’s exit from politics is a welcome development.

Dutton is just revisiting the Howard years

In his Budget Reply speech on Thursday night, Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, attempted to rally his base supporters – possibly an appeal to One Nation supporters – however, his speech failed to impress and raised concerns about the direction of the party. Dutton’s attacks on the idea of a “big Australia” and immigration, along with his criticism of the increase in public servants in Canberra, reflected a continuation of the policies of past Liberal leaders such as Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott, and John Howard. Unfortunately for Dutton and the party, this approach is outdated and out of touch with contemporary politics.

One of Dutton’s main messages focused on the failures of the Labor Party, particularly on higher power prices, higher unemployment, and higher taxes. While there may be some validity to the argument about power prices, the claims of higher unemployment and higher taxes lack substantial evidence. It appears that Dutton is resorting to the same old tactics that have become synonymous with the Liberal Party, failing to offer fresh ideas or progressive solutions.

Demographically, the Liberal Party is facing a disastrous situation. The under-35 demographic shows little support for the party, unlike in the past when it enjoyed higher levels of support from young voters. The declining trend in younger voters aligning with the Liberal Party is alarming and indicates a lack of foundation upon which the party can build as individuals grow older and more conservative. While it is true that numbers, not just age, matter in politics, the fact remains that the Liberal Party is struggling to attract and retain a diverse voter base. Unless a substantial change occurs within the party, they face an uphill battle in future elections.

There are speculations within the Liberal Party about alternative leadership options, particularly the deputy leader Sussan Ley. Although there isn’t an active push to make her the leader at present, the party seems to be preparing for potential changes in leadership if the situation deteriorates further. Ley’s engagement in a listening tour and increased participation in parliamentary Question Time reflects her aspirations for leadership. However, it is worth noting that the Liberal Party, like any political entity, must be ready for any leadership transition, even as a contingency plan.

Another figure mentioned is Shadow Treasurer, Angus Taylor, but his recent inconsistencies and lack of credibility have tarnished his reputation. He fails to make a serious contribution to the party’s future.

The Liberal Party is undoubtedly in a difficult position. Dutton, is struggling to resonate with the public, and the party’s frontbench appears demoralised. While political parties need to be prepared with alternative leadership, it is surprising that Ley is considered a leader-in-waiting, even though she is the deputy leader – Ley’s past controversies, such as “accidentally” buying a unit on the Gold Coast during a parliamentary business trip, have left a negative impression. Her lack of popularity among the wider community hinders her chances of becoming an electorally acceptable face for the Liberal Party.

Additionally, Taylor’s involvement in questionable activities, such as his involvement in Eastern Australia Agriculture – an entity established under a cloak of secrecy in the Cayman Islands – and alleging forged travel documents in an attempt to support a political campaign for his wife, Louise Clegg, to run for position of Lord Mayor of Sydney, has further damaged his standing. The party needs a leader who can tap into the zeitgeist and reinvigorate the Liberal brand, but such a figure is currently lacking.

The Liberal Party is facing an uncertain future. It must confront the reality of its dwindling support among younger voters and the need for new ideas that align with the current era. While Ley might be the likely candidate for leadership – if it does come to that – the truth is that whoever leads the party at this moment is bound to be irrelevant. The Liberal Party must undergo significant changes to regain relevance and appeal to a broader spectrum of voters.

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About Eddy Jokovich 62 Articles
Eddy Jokovich is a journalist, publisher, author, political analyst, campaigner, war correspondent, and lecturer in media studies at the University of Technology, Sydney and the University of Sydney; has a wide range of experience working in editorial and media production work and is Director of ARMEDIA, a publishing and communications company specialising in public interest media.