After a disastrous electoral defeat, the Liberals face a problem that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. And they may not have the answer.
The Liberal Party now has to decide whether Saturday night’s election defeat is a blip or the start of a much bigger problem.
Voters in traditional Liberal seats sent a clear message to Scott Morrison, with independents winning North Sydney, Mackellar, Wentworth and Goldstein. And likely losses in Curtin and Kooyong, as well as Zali Steggall retaining his seat in Tony Abbott’s former Warringah constituency.
A few years ago it would be almost unimaginable if the Liberals did not hold some of these seats.
But so-called “teal” independents campaigning on climate change action and women’s issues were able to defeat Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman, and treasurer Josh Fydenberg is unlikely to be re-elected.
But how do the Liberals win back these voters?
Voters in well-to-do Liberal seats have not been afraid to vote in protest in the past, but they usually return to the Coalition.
Kerryn Phelps won the Wentworth by-election in 2018 when Malcom Turnbull stood down, but the seat in Sydney’s eastern suburbs soon voted Liberal back with Dave Sharma the following year.
(Sharma was one of the liberal casualties on Saturday night, proving voters weren’t afraid to send another message.)
If Peter Dutton is the new Liberal leader after the resignation of Scott Morrison, one wonders how the party will bring its most progressive voters back into the fold.
Speaking in initiates on Sunday morning Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham said a clear message had been sent to the party.
She admitted that the Coalition lost women’s votes, and that the party needed to do more to win back female voters.
“We need to make sure we get back a lot more of those professionals and especially Australian women,” she said.
The Senator has been the most outspoken Coalition member since the electoral defeat.
Long before Mr. Morrison conceded defeat, Senator Birmingham was already speaking about the impact that Warringah Prime Minister Katherine Deves’ “captain’s pick” had had on votes in other seats.
“I think the 2019 Warringah election result was devastating for the Liberal Party, to see a former Liberal Party leader in Tony Abbott lose there and as widely as he did, but to see tonight’s Liberal vote go back and it seemed be going. backwards with a 7 percent tune, I think it sends a clear message,” he said.
“And in the case of Warringah, we’ve seen the problems play out there.
“I think it sends a message about what Australians believe when it comes to issues of respect, inclusion, diversity, and the message is that Australians want people to respect their lives, but they also want to have a strong and deep respect for the lives of others.
“We’re seeing a strong message, and I’m afraid the impact on Warringah may have had a spillover effect to adjacent seats.”
Liberal Senator Alex Antic had an alternative view when he spoke on Sky News this morning.
He stressed that “the Liberal Party’s experiment with the poison of leftism and progressivism must end. It’s as simple as that.”
“I mean, all the people who lost their seats were, in many cases, people trying to appease the climate crowd. And let’s see what happens,” she said.
Birmingham, as leader of the now-diminished moderate wing of the Liberals, was unsure who he could back as the new leader.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t know,” he said. initiates host David Speers. “I will speak to my colleagues in the next few days and I will talk to them about the kinds of issues that we just discussed and what I think is necessary to rebuild, to reestablish the party in the places where we lost support.
“I will seek to ensure that whoever takes on that role understands the task ahead of them and hopefully has a clear enough idea of how to carry out that task and, in particular, how to ensure that we bring more women into the liberal fold. Australians and make sure they are shortlisted in much larger numbers so we can make sure our match better reflects the reality of modern Australia within our range.”
Hardly a resounding endorsement of Mr. Dutton.
But liberals have few other options.
With Mr. Frydenberg out of Kooyong, the party isn’t exactly spoiled for choice.
That is why columnist Joe Hildebrand said Labor voters in Frydenberg’s seat should have voted Liberal to help save him, arguing that the Treasurer in his seat would mean a more progressive Liberal Party.
It means that at a time when voters at the Liberal heartland clearly want the party to be more progressive, they could move further to the right under Dutton.
It leaves the Liberals in a very difficult situation. But with no other options, the difficult task of winning back voters in progressive seats in Sydney and Melbourne may be left to Dutton.