Liberal Senator Zed Seselja may not have officially conceded defeat, but a leaked email sent to members of the Canberra Liberals this week suggests the party knows it’s over.
In the email seen by Region Media, party president John Cziesla described the impending loss of its long-held ACT Senate seat as a “bitter blow” that would compound the losses across the country at last Saturday night’s Federal Election.
Mr Cziesla blamed a well-funded ‘vicious’ campaign from the left for the Seselja upset and accused the media of having supported it.
“Over the last decade, we have faced an unprecedented campaign in relation to its longevity, scale, funding, and viciousness to unseat a single parliamentary seat. By our preliminary estimates, the left has spent in excess of $12 million over the last decade in their efforts to unseat the ACT Liberal Senator,” he wrote.
“In this they have been supported by a media that has never really bothered itself with undertaking any meaningful scrutiny of our opponents, their policies, let alone any of their tactics.”
The party president said there must be “reflection” on the future and a series of complex realities would need to be faced.
“As a party, if we are to offer anything to the future of the nation, we must remain committed to the values that underpin our party, values such as freedom of speech, thought, association and religion, to remain the party of the forgotten people and the party of those who aspire to create a better life for themselves and their families,” he said.
“But we must also face the reality that those values are no longer shared, at least not at anything more than a superficial level, in areas that were once Liberal heartland and that forgotten people of the 2020s may no longer be the same as the forgotten people of the 1950s.”
These “complex realities” have been described to Region Media by party insiders, many of whom claim the conservative shadow of Mr Seselja could continue to loom large within the party’s branch structure.
Some sources suggest that Elizabeth Lee will struggle to steer the party to the centre without the support of the organisational wing of the party, including the management committee.
The party is now bleeding members and it’s been alleged that for the last decade at least, members have been denied entry if they were not deemed to be close to Mr Seselja.
The outgoing Senator retains powerful allies within the party, including the Young Liberals.
However, at least one source, who is understood to be politically aligned with Mr Seselja, declared themselves enthusiastic about his departure.
Region Media understands that personality clashes contributed to in-fighting as much as factional differences in opinion.
The last Liberal Chief Minister, Gary Humphries, said Ms Lee had done well to publicly portray the party as more moderate since her appointment to the leadership in 2020.
But he agreed with others who said Ms Lee must now win support within the organisational wing of the party.
“If she cannot back up her moderate position with policy then she will be undercut,” he said.
Mr Humphries agreed the only way forward for the party was to bring itself to the centre and appeal to the Territory’s progressive electorate.
He was particularly concerned by Mr Seselja’s hard-line stance on Territory rights.
“By arguing that the ACT Legislative Assembly and the ACT didn’t have sufficient maturity and sophistication to make this decision, [Mr Seselja] put the party in an intellectually unsustainable position and in one which was insulting to the Territory’s voters,” Mr Humphries told Region Media.
“The party has now steered itself dangerously to the right and was so off-putting at both the ACT and the federal election that people simply weren’t prepared to vote for [the Liberals].”
Without Mr Seselja, Ms Lee will now hold the highest elected position in the Canberra Liberals. But she was unwilling to decisively rid herself of the former Senator’s ghosts just yet; instead, describing the weekend’s results as “very disappointing”.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘it’s time to go to the left’ or whatever it might be … the thing about the Liberal Party is that it’s a broad church,” Ms Lee said.
“There will be a complexity of reasons as to why there was such a swing against us in the ACT … but I think most people just need to look at me and my record to know what I have advocated and lobbied for.”
She said a review of what had gone wrong would be undertaken in the near future, but she wouldn’t jump to conclusions yet.