Opinion: Liberals can expect a voter backlash

CIRCUS: After this week's antics of Peter Dutton and co, the drift from the major parties is likely to continue. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
CIRCUS: After this week's antics of Peter Dutton and co, the drift from the major parties is likely to continue. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

The Liberal leadership challenge is the immediate result of the unhealthy cocktail of ego and revenge.

Tony Abbott (and his “outlawed mates”) just wanted to get even with Turnbull for seizing the leadership in the first place.

They then fed the ego of the likes of Dutton to get him to believe that he could actually lead a government in this country – hapless Dutton, just a sort of Trojan horse to get them back inside the cabinet gates.

The facade was concern about energy policy although, clearly, policy substance and evidence had little to do with what they were on about.

It was just a platform from which to knock over Turnbull, and to hopefully seize the leadership.

Unfortunately, given the significance of the climate challenge, and the business and social opportunities for our nation to enjoy from the successful transition to renewables and alternative technologies, it now seems, as one of my ALP mates told me: “The modern Liberal Party just can’t deal with climate change.”

Of course, Turnbull was vulnerable.

He had consistently failed to match any of the expectations with which he seized the leadership from Abbott, to deliver good policy and good government. 

He almost lost the last federal election, and failed his own test of leadership at the recent Longman by-election. 

He also consistently failed to manage most issues to the government’s political benefit as they arose, and failed to manage his party and the Coalition – he would never out or confront the destabilisers.

However, taking a longer-term view, it is reasonable to ask whether the Liberal Party is actually in structural decline, as also evidenced in the collapse in the standing of the major traditional parties in recent European and US elections.

I received a note from a concerned Liberal this week on the state of the party, in the following terms: “No policies, no strong convictions, no values, corrupt party practices, factional warlords, and poor parliamentary representation.”

On first blush, it’s a rough assessment. But when it comes from those who have spent decades manning polling booths, handing out how-to-vote cards, making phone calls, door knocking, fund raising, and many more support activities – while on many occasions having had to defend the indefensible about some stupid utterance or excess by some Liberal MP/Senator – you can begin to understand the frustration when their “representatives” fail to deliver what they elected them to do.

Even worse, when these reps seem so self-absorbed – playing their own mindless, immature games, scoring points on each other or blame shifting, rather than governing, meeting challenges and solving problems that matter to the majority of Australians, with little or no sense of our national interest. 

And when they won’t listen, and seem oblivious to virtually anything outside the Canberra beltway.

In these terms, the last couple of weeks have been most unedifying and disturbing to the party rank and file, and offensive to the wider electorate.

How the likes of Abbott and Dutton can imagine that, somehow, their destruction will ultimately be accepted as necessary completely boggles the mind.

They have learned absolutely nothing from their own history of the electoral consequences of disunity, or from the recent ALP history of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd era.

Indeed, the Liberals took the high ground in that era, but have now so easily slipped into their gutter.

Dutton has been hitting the populous media attempting to suggest that he does actually have a policy agenda, and that the “real Dutton” is about to break out.

Both strategies have been tried before, by many others, only to be soon revealed as vacuous, mere words.

As another commented to me in the street this week: “When are these clowns going to grow up and show some maturity? When will they recognise the honour and opportunity that has been bestowed on them? When will they recognise and accept the responsibilities of their elected positions?”

Obviously, these leadership challenges treat the voter with contempt.

It is little wonder that 1 in 3 didn’t vote for either the LNP or ALP at the last federal election.

Expect the drift from the major parties to continue.  

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.