The Liberals’ Problem Isn’t The Brand, It’s The Philosophy

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29 June 2023
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The political program of small government, more choice and more personal responsibility is not appealing to voters after years of COVID and in economic tough times.

Apparently, according to the media, pollsters and more than a few Liberal MPs, the Liberal Party has a problem with “young people” and “women” as these key groups vote for it in ever-decreasing numbers. As a statement of the obvious, it’s true – but trivial.

If you hold just two out of 59 seats in your state parliament’s lower house, as the West Australians Liberals do, or you’re polling at 23 per cent, as the Victorian Liberals are, you’ve got a problem with everyone – not just young people and women.

In other states the picture is not quite so bad, but it’s not great. In last year’s South Australian state election, the Liberals’ first preference vote was 36 per cent; in the New South Wales election in March, it was 27 per cent (with the Nationals on 9 per cent). By comparison, the combined Labor/Green vote in South Australia was 49 per cent and in New South Wales 47 per cent.

For some of the middle-aged men in the Liberal Party, the allure of the mythical youth/professional women/teal vote is irresistible. It’s as if some Liberals would rather get one twenty-something Greens voter than two fifty-something Labor voters. The Liberals who think like that don’t realise that if they won just 1 per cent of the ALP vote they’d gain three times as many votes than if they won that share of the Greens vote.

The Liberal Party is not alone in its troubles. Sometimes the critics of a philosophy are better at identifying what’s happening to it than its friends. In February this year, the left-wing The New Statesman featured a story, “The strange death of the centre right”, detailing the decline of traditional centre-right political parties across Europe and North America.

The public opinion polling released this week from JWS Research reveals the task ahead for the Liberals. Cost of living, housing and interest rates, and hospitals and healthcare are by a long way the issues Australians care most about right now. All are issues that in some way require the government to take action.

After the years of COVID, voters want them and their families to be looked after – they don’t want to be left to fend for themselves.

What’s interesting about these issues though is that while the first two come and go in priority as economic circumstances change, health and healthcare have for many years been constant as a top-of-mind concern for Australians. “Health” is a proxy measure for people’s sense of their own and their families’ well-being, and it’s Labor’s perceived advantage in this area that Liberals should worry about much more than any lead the ALP is supposed to have on climate change.

To be fair, some Liberals have an inkling of this. In Victoria, former Liberal leader Matthew Guy had an election promise to build or upgrade 14 hospitals, while in New South Wales Dominic Perrottet went six better with his promise to build or improve 20 hospitals. Their strategy didn’t work. A decades-long perception that Labor is better on health than the Liberals can’t be overturned in the space of a few months.

More thoughtful Liberals realise their challenges go far beyond whatever are the day-to-day perceptions of their party’s brand. For many voters in Australia the problem is not the “Liberal Party” – it’s the philosophy it stands for. The problem might be with “liberalism” itself.

In a post-COVID, post-Great Recession world, and in the midst of war in Europe and a growing sense of a globe in crisis, a “liberal” political party that says (or at least once used to say) to the electorate “we’ll cut your taxes and get the government out of your life so you can make your own decisions” is trying to sell a message that few people want to hear.

If “liberalism” and its political program of small government/more choice/more personal responsibility was on the ballot anywhere in Australia at the moment, it would lose.

After the years of COVID, voters want them and their families to be looked after – they don’t want to be left to fend for themselves. In our two-party system, one side of politics has traditionally declared “we’ll leave you alone” while the other side promises “the government is here to help you”.

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This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review on or about 29 June 2023 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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