“Wrong leader, wrong message, wrong campaign.”
That was the message from longtime Canberra Liberal insiders after Alistair Coe’s “it’s time” election campaign delivered not victory, but a significant defeat. The Liberals currently have just eight seats and have experienced a 3.6 per cent swing against them across the Territory and a much larger swing in their traditional southern heartland in Tuggeranong.
The party had attempted to re-brand themselves as socially conscious and moderate, making a prominent play of their million trees policy and plans for social housing.
But well-placed sources suggest that internal tensions between conservatives and moderates within the party are still wreaking havoc with their chances of victory.
There are reports that funds were re-allocated to more conservative candidates in the final days of this campaign, while others were allegedly caught red-handed destroying election signage belonging to their factional opponents.
Both are indicators that the Liberals continue to be more focussed on the party room contest than the election itself and that Senator Zed Seselja still has a powerful influence on local politics. Alistair Coe is a conservative power broker who has managed the Party room numbers deftly in the past.
Political scientist and Emeritus Professor John Warhurst says the Liberal defeat need not have happened.
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“Better services and lower taxes was a fairly ideologically free zone,” he says. “It doesn’t go to the battles between conservatives and progressives inside the party and they would have been united on those issues throughout the campaign.
“But once you have a brand, that takes a long time to disappear. If your only senator and major national figure is associated with the more conservative side of the Party, then the image of being the most conservative Liberal branch in the country will hurt you.”
Warhurst says that although the Liberals had an ethnically diverse group of candidates, very few of those people have been elected, leaving a very small pool to move forward. The Liberals’ best possible outcome of 10 Assembly seats is the bare minimum for an opposition party in the Hare Clark system. Eight or nine seats would be, Warhurst says, “a disaster of enormous proportions”.
The campaign was helmed by Josh Manuatu, from the federal Liberal right and most recently associated with the Angus Taylor imbroglio over Sydney City Council’s alleged travel costs.
The intention was to create a disciplined campaign where Coe and his candidates would present a coherent and unified message around the cost of living. But there were never substantive answers to the key questions about where the money would come from to fund their promises.
John Warhurst says nobody was convinced by the argument that growing the population pie would work, especially within a Liberal government’s first term
“The attempt to be disciplined and play to Coe’s strengths didn’t allow the discussion to be as adult and broad as it needed to be,” he says.
“Alistair Coe’s limitations were revealed. The style of campaign wasn’t well fitted to an inexperienced leader who comes across as a serious young man. He’s not a Boris Johnson, not even a Kate Carnell who used to jump out of planes and was an ‘out there’ personality.
“In order to unseat a very established government in a progressive city, the Liberals have to do everything right, and the timing has to be right too. Possibly timing worked against them because of the pandemic, but the particular combination of leader and campaign was not enough to overturn a government that despite its flaws, appears seasoned and experienced by contrast.”
Most observers expect that a Liberal leadership challenge is a matter of time, but the mechanics may not be as straightforward as they appear to outsiders.
Elizabeth Lee’s significant electoral appeal as an intelligent, capable woman with a strong migrant family story is a point of difference to the male Labor and Green leaders. Mark Parton’s relaxed and community-oriented approach has also served him well in Brindabella and Jeremy Hanson as deputy to either would provide valuable experience.
But stories about last-minute funding shifts to prop up more conservative candidates suggest that although the electorate might not want Alistair Coe as leader, he’s still working the factional numbers hard inside the Party room.
“It will be very tough to change the leadership,” John Warhurst says.
“Leaders are chewed up by the Canberra Liberals and they have nowhere to go when Zed Seselja has a lock on the Senate. And coming from so far back, re-shaping the Liberal Party now starts to look like an eight-year task, not four.”