The disastrous showing of the Liberal Party at the Victorian state election has spawned the same number of theories as the total of seats the Liberals are likely to lose.
The left wing of the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, and the ABC are already saying Matthew Guy’s Liberals lost because their policies were too “right wing” for a supposedly progressive state like Victoria.
Climate change is given as the evidence for such a claim – but the reality is somewhat different. True, the Liberals said they would scrap Victorian Labor’s renewable energy targets, but only because the Liberals said they supported national, not state-based, emissions targets. For all intents and purposes the two parties’ positions on climate change were indistinguishable.
There’s nothing “right wing” about the Liberals promising, as they did, to have the government hand out half-price fridges and TVs to cut emissions. Nor is there anything particularly “liberal” about such policies either. ”Redistributive semi-socialism” might be a better description for it.
It might be that the removal of a left-leaning Liberal prime minister in Malcolm Turnbull might have changed some Liberal votes in Victoria, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Victorian Liberals had been behind Labor in the polls for the past five years.
If the Victorian Liberals had promised to implement an aggressive program of cutting state taxes, reducing the size of the public service, controlling lawless trade unions, winding back Labor’s Nanny State regulations, and building a coal-fired power station then maybe there would be some merit in the left’s claims against the Liberals. Unfortunately the Liberals promised none of these things.
The Liberals campaigned aggressively on law and order, but Labor responded by pointing out that many of the things the Liberals said they would do, Labor was already implementing.
On top of all of this, Victorian voters contrasted the do-nothing approach to infrastructure of the Coalition Baillieu and Napthine administrations between 2010 and 2014, and the build- everything-immediately, regardless of the cost, approach of the Andrews government over the past four years.
These are all by now well-documented problems with the Liberals’ election strategy. A more fundamental problem for the Victorian Liberals was that the public sensed a lack of clarity of what the Liberals stand for. And as has been witnessed since Saturday from the way state and federal Liberals are talking about what the election loss means, a number of Liberal MPs don’t know what their party stands for either.
After nearly three decades of uninterrupted economic growth, what used to be the Liberals’ election-winning mantra of fiscal prudence and responsibility seems to be no longer working – either at the state or federal level. The Liberals are as enthusiastic about big-spending social programs as is Labor. Unfortunately though for the Liberals, because most of these programs are Labor initiatives the Liberals don’t even get electoral benefit for implementing them.
The Liberals, both state and federal, are at risk of not knowing what they stand for because they are now trying to appeal to two constituencies with very different belief systems. The concerns of those in inner-city, wealthy, and cosmopolitan electorates like Wentworth in Sydney are different from those in working-class electorates like Longman in Brisbane.
This phenomenon played out in the Victorian state election. Leafy, affluent seats in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs swung viciously against the Liberals, while in some country and regional areas the swing against the party was practically non-existent.
The Liberals might have to realise that because an electorate has always been Liberal it doesn’t mean it always will be, or should be in the future. In an ideal world the Liberals would continue to use their “broad church” appeal to gain the support of both the Wentworths and the Longmans. Once the Liberals could do this – whether they still can, is an open question.
It is not clear whether those Liberals who want their party to move to the left and embrace higher taxes and bigger government are saying so because they genuinely believe it, or because they think that is what is now required to win elections in Australia. To avoid having a debate about ideas, some Liberals are now claiming ideas don’t matter and the party should aim to be merely practical and pragmatic.
While the Liberals now engage on their necessary soul-searching they should remember that if you don’t even attempt to fight the battle of ideas you will be guaranteed to lose.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review