Flat White

The Victorian Liberals caused their own catastrophe

26 November 2018

6:18 PM

26 November 2018

6:18 PM

Now the dust of last Saturday’s electoral bloodbath in Victoria is starting to settle, it’s time for some sober reflection.  At least that’s what should be happening.

But state Liberal president Michael Kroger seeking to explain the result on Sky News on Monday was especially fascinating viewing.

The chaos in the federal Liberals was a factor but not a decisive one, said Kroger, telling those arguing otherwise too ‘grow up’.  Instead, he said, ‘we were beaten on policy’.

Kroger laid it out to his Sky interviewers. Labor premier Daniel Andrews has committed to ‘the biggest infrastructure spend in Australian history’.  Labor’s signature infrastructure initiative, the removal of dozens of level crossings around Melbourne and regional Victoria, were physical and popular proof of ‘a government doing things’.

People love public spending on roads, hospitals schools and trains, Kroger said.  It simply didn’t matter to voters that Andrews’s massive capital works programme would plunge Victorian into equally massive debt, particularly those voters who have known only recession-free economic prosperity, high employment and low interests rates for nigh on a generation.

But government offering ‘free stuff’ like solar panels and batteries, public dental care, extra years of early childhood education and even sanitary products also resonated with voters making household budgets stretch.

Therefore, according to Kroger, Saturday’s electoral bloodbath has nothing to do with the state president, or the Liberal organisation, or anyone else in particular.  It came down to an ‘argument about policy’.

Kroger’s assessment is on the money. Andrews succeeded so massively because he and Labor marketed a positive vision for Victoria and Victorians, with policies to match.  They framed this vision around macro capital works, but also around targeted micro giveaways, like solar fitout subsidies, aimed squarely at households and strains on household budgets in a low wage growth environment. They gambled voters would look at these achievements and plans rather than their vulnerable and sleazy underbelly, and their gamble paid off handsomely.

But Kroger’s ex-post facto critique begs the obvious question: if this perception of the Coalition’s challenge in taking on Andrews was so clear, WTF were they doing over the last four years and in the election campaign itself?

The subtext of the Kroger analysis is the parliamentary party is responsible for policy, so blame them for not delivering.  That is true, and Liberal leader Matthew Guy’s frontbench didn’t do anywhere near enough to hold the Andrews government to account, let alone develop and market new policy.  And such policy messaging there was itself was too narrowcast and negative, heavily dominated by law and order and decentralisation.  If Guy and his parliamentary team accepts the Kroger analysis, they must also accept they failed in their own policy responsibilities and in holding a grubby crony government to account.

But it’s the organisational wing, headed by the state president, that plans and runs election campaign, and that campaign was woeful.

Who decided the Liberal slogan would be ‘Get Back in Control’ when their federal colleagues were trashing the entire Liberal brand by being so out of control, and the Victorian division was publicly at war with itself?

Who decided to go deeply negative on law and order and public safety, but not develop a coordinated, policy-backed narrative showing the Coalition had a positive, forward-looking vision for a mainstream, centre-right Victoria that focused on better and more efficient services?

Who decided to run adverts with Guy telling voters the Liberals had a plan, but sent them to a website to find it?  Who failed to counter Labor ads blatantly lying about ‘Liberal cuts’, including Jeff Kennett’s needing to rescue the state from Labor-inflicted bankruptcy?

Despite it being a replay of 2014, who failed to counter Labor’s savvy mobilisation of unionists, volunteers and GetUp!, many brazenly kitted out in red shirts, door-knocking and manning polling booths with messages to ‘put the Liberals last’?

Who presided over a central campaign so poor and badly targeted that strong local campaigns by excellent candidates in key seats, particularly the Frankston line seats of Bentleigh, Mordialloc, Carrum and Frankston, were so easily blown away by hack Labor MPs?

Oh, and who decided to squander so much goodwill and scarce resources suing the party’s biggest donor to resist making overdue governance reforms, played pointless tactical games in selecting Liberal candidates in inner city seats pitting labor against the Greens, and watched on while new members were recruited to help factional warlords control preselections and party offices, and threaten the preselections of able sitting MPs and senators?

The organisational wing, that’s who.

This generational defeat is no orphan: it has a thousand fathers and mothers. Michael Kroger and his hand-picked state and campaign director, Nick Demiris, are two of the biggest and ultimately responsible for the conduct of the election campaign.  Kroger, therefore, can’t crab-walk away from Saturday’s result and claim defiantly it’s nothing to do with him.  He presides over the party organisation.  He is its highly public face.  He chose to pursue the Cormack Foundation as relentlessly and pointlessly as Javert pursued Jean Valjean.  He is in the frame at least as much as Matthew Guy or anyone.

Whether Kroger goes or stays now is immaterial.  But he and other senior Liberals, state and federal, must move past denial and self-justification to accept the magnitude of their Victorian defeat, a defeat that presages even greater disaster for their federal colleagues and the nation as a whole.

They must acknowledge and accept responsibility for what has just happened, even it means stepping aside or down. Seeking to shift blame elsewhere achieves nothing.  They must confront the fact that so many mainstream, conservative-leaning Victorians have lost faith in the party of Menzies, and many grassroots Liberal members have lost faith in their own leadership.  That so many voters in safe Liberal seats preferred to swallow hard, and vote Labor because at least Andrews seems to know what he’s doing, cannot be swept under the carpet by Kroger or anyone else.  They have collectively authored this debacle, and together they must reap their own whirlwind.

Only if it accepts the Victorian catastrophe was more the Coalition’s doing than Labor’s can the Liberal Party learn the lessons of its demolition and start to recover and rebuild.  But if this self-awareness doesn’t dawn soon, kiss goodbye to the Morrison government in six months’ time, and even be prepared to kiss goodbye to the Liberal party as we know it.

Illustration: Sky News Australia.

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