Dismay among Victorian Liberals at Malcolm Turnbull’s dumping may have dissipated somewhat,
but not displeasure at the party having veered away from the centre ground in the mistaken belief its salvation could be found among climate-change deniers, social conservatives, renewables antagonists, culture-wars warriors, coal fetishists, and right-wing ideologues from various think tanks funded by modern day robber barons.
Disaffection among Victorian Liberals reflects a much wider nationwide disappointment at the party’s direction manifested in the Wentworth result last year.
In all of this, what is undeniable is that Victoria represents the Liberal Party’s soft underbelly in the sense that it is the place where the 2019 election could be lost stone dead irrespective of what happens anywhere else.
A useful statistical analysis by Tim Colebatch of Inside Story – Twilight of the Liberals? – transposes state election results onto federal seats and finds that only two Victorian Liberal seats are safe. That’s right, two out of the 14 it currently holds.
These are the seats of Wannon (Malcolm Fraser’s old seat) in the western district held by Education Minister Dan
Tehan, and the west Gippsland seat of Monash (the renamed McMillan) held by Russell Broadbent, one of a diminishing coterie of party moderates.
Space does not permit a full description of Liberal Party vulnerabilities, but one seat, that of Higgins, reveals the extent to which the party has yielded the sensible centre ground. On the state numbers Higgins would be gone.
Until fairly recently, this had been the bluest of blue ribbon seats, not unlike Wentworth. It has been held by two Liberal prime ministers, Harold Holt and John Gorton, and by Peter Costello, the country’s longest-serving treasurer until the defeat of the John Howard government in 2007.
Speaking of Howard, his failure to put in place a succession plan that would have enabled Costello to find his feet as prime minister in time to contest the 2007 election remains one of the great missed opportunities of Australian politics.
Back in 1966 when Holt inflicted one of Labor’s worst-ever defeats in what was known as the “Vietnam election’’, who could have believed the Victorian division would become the sick man of the Liberal Party.
Or that the Victorian division would have found itself subsumed by the dominant New South Wales branch, or, further afield, be subject to the gravitational pull of conservative Queensland – home of a mythical conservative base.
Or, that Victorian representation in Liberal Party senior ranks would fall away after Costello to the point Victoria has not occupied a party leadership position since 2007 – leader or deputy – until Frydenberg came along.
In that time the Liberal Party federal leadership has resided with a full house of Sydney-based MPs. These include Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull (twice), Tony Abbott, and now Scott Morrison. The latter is regarded by many Victorians as an archetypal Sydney blowhard.
Added to that from a Victorian perspective, the Liberal Party has found itself in thrall to a rowdy gaggle of proto-conservative commentators who have terrorised elected moderates to the point where these individuals are fleeing elective office.
On the night of the Victorian state election rout, a despairing Senate president Scott Ryan gave voice, and commendably, to anger within the Liberal Party at a wall of noise from commentators on the right who had sought to “ram their views down other’s people’s throat’’.
Whatever way you look at it, the Coalition is in very big trouble in Victoria. I’m told internal “benchmark’’ polling in individual electorates is discouraging.
“We’re going to get slaughtered, mate,’’ a Liberal insider tells me.
In their efforts to put the best face on what might be regarded as deeply unpromising circumstances, federal Liberals are hoping Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s unpopularity will ameliorate a bad result.
Shorten’s unlikeability is not contradicted by opinion polls, including a 2016 study by the Australian National University. This found he rated lowest on likeability of any opposition leader, with the exception of Andrew Peacock, since the late 1980s at 4.22 percent.
However, the ANU study also noted that Tony Abbott in 2013 had a rating of 4.29 per cent, barely above that of Shorten today. The point is that in an election in which voters have resolved to get rid of the government of the day, the popularity, or otherwise, of the alternative is not necessarily an impediment to retribution; or, put another way, a constraint on sticking the knife into a soft underbelly.
Tony Walker is a vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University and a regular columnist.
Tony Walker writes on politics, North America and the Middle East. Tony is the Financial Review’s dual-Walkley Award-winning international editor whose foreign postings have included Washington, Beijing and Cairo. He received a Centenary of Federation Award for contributions to Journalism and the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in press gallery journalism.