How the party room battle defeated Liberals’ chances of winning an “it’s time” election

Genevieve Jacobs 18 October 2020 36
Alistair Coe voting with his family

Alistair Coe votes with his family. Photo: Facebook.

“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.

READ MORE: Election 2020: Labor back for sixth term but Green surge surprises

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.

“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.”

READ MORE: Stubborn Coe weighed down by his own economic baggage

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.”

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36 Responses to How the party room battle defeated Liberals’ chances of winning an “it’s time” election
Roger Mungummary Roger Mungummary 9:05 pm 19 Oct 20

Tge total lack of costings for their pie in the sky promises easily branded them as trickle down advocate coverage

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 8:22 pm 19 Oct 20

“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,”

The most important timing issue is probably what’s happening federally. The best chance for the ACT Liberals is likely to be when there is a federal Labor government which has lost a fair bit of its gloss, including with Canberra voters – which might help to explain the relatively good result in 2012.

Those planets aren’t going to align very often, so the ACT Liberals will likely be spending a further long stretch watching from Opposition – which mightn’t be such a bad place to be, with some rather large time-bombs due to go off in coming years.

Phoebe Saunders Phoebe Saunders 1:35 pm 19 Oct 20

Excellent analysis, thanks Genevieve Jacobs.

Acton Acton 7:57 am 19 Oct 20

Every democracy needs an opposition party to hold the government to account and to offer the people a viable alternative. Coe is not a viable alternative. The only hope for the Liberal party is for Gary Humphries to rejoin and reform it. Coe has got to go.

    chewy14 chewy14 8:48 am 19 Oct 20

    Whilst I agree with you that Coe was a major problem, Gary Humphries is 62 years old.

    He us not a solution to a party that needs new blood.

Stephen Lawrence Stephen Lawrence 6:57 am 19 Oct 20

There is little point to the ACT liberals

Ian Ian 10:57 pm 18 Oct 20

The Libs promised a magic pudding of lower taxes AND better services, which people see through. They also lack the credibility to convince people that they would be capable of delivering what they promise.

They’d be better served I think by accepting that Labor, while it has faults, does a reasonable job of governing, and not a lot of change is needed. I’d be focusing on the health system and coming up with a credible plan to fix its problems, and ditch all the outlandish statements and promises. In particular, I’d go with the community flow on the social issues – their current conservative stance on most issues isn’t going to win them anything.

I struggle to see the Libs winning government short of a major Labor scandal.

    Brisal Brisal 10:54 am 19 Oct 20

    “The Libs promised a magic pudding of lower taxes AND better services”

    Never mind the logical dissonance that the better services would be paid for by “increasing the pie” with a growing population, yet somehow that larger population wouldn’t need additional services themselves?

    JS9 JS9 12:14 pm 19 Oct 20

    They could easily win government if they spend the next 4 years developing a proper alternative policy agenda, with proper costings, a proper plan for balancing the budget (or improving it), rather then rushing it all out in the last few months then going ‘cough cough look over there’ every time someone asked where the magic pudding was.

    Its really not hard – but will need a swing to a more moderate and less conservative mindset per say. But they need to start now – not wait till 3 years in. Come up with some proper, signature policy positions that are well thought out and genuinely tested with the community and you might get somewhere.

    Its easy to just instead take the $$$ and be a permanent opposition however, rather then finding ways to actually start to erode the voter base of the greens and labor with viable policy alternatives.

Lee McDowall Lee McDowall 9:49 pm 18 Oct 20

I don't know why I vote, what a total waste of time, Canberra voters really need to wake up

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 11:23 pm 18 Oct 20

    It's called democracy, and it appears most people have a different opinion than you do. Maybe they are the ones who have woken up. If a better offering was to come from the Liberals I imagine more people would vote for them. What was offered was obviously not what was wanted, was considered a bribe, was too simplistic, the Liberals were not trusted, were too conservative, etc. There was a reason more people didn't vote for them, and that would have varied for each voter. Canberra is one of the most educated populations in Australia, and all I saw was mainly childish ads from the Liberals. The ads were not designed for the local voters. They were insulting. Also, some of the vote would have been Covid related. Around the world conservative governments (examples, USA, UK) (also locally, unhelpful comments from Morrison) have appeared to made a bigger hash of controlling it, while non conservative appear to have done better. Just look at how NZ has handled it, and the landslide that resulted.

Kerry Rooney Kerry Rooney 8:27 pm 18 Oct 20

Andrew Barr has been doing a very good job as Chef Minister.

chewy14 chewy14 6:07 pm 18 Oct 20

Running with Alastair Coe as the leader was always going to be pushing the proverbial uphill, even with how much the government’s longevity works against them.

It seems that the Liberals were so unpalatable in this guise that the protest vote has gone to the Greens and Independents.

The Liberals should recognise the enormity of this failure and regroup with a new, more moderate leader.

But they’ve proven over a long time not to be able to learn any lessons in what should be an easy layup, so will probably go the other way.

Mac John Mac John 5:41 pm 18 Oct 20

There are three things. Firstly, some volunteers observed in campaigning at the mawson shops recently were observed ( for at least half an hour) standing in a circle talking snd joking. These people were wearing Zed shirts and holding campaign handouts, but were not talking to any passer by, while one candidate was working hard with out support from these Zed dressed liberals. I felt sorry for the candidate ( who did not get elected) to have these lazy Zed dressed liberals around. They would have been better off elsewhere. They seems like an entitled bunch. Secondly, the party machine snd leader could not answer the question of where the money would come from, whether or not trams to Belconnen or Woden were on or whether the project would be cancelled or how a person who does not own a car or house will benefit. Finally the man from Mr Taylor’s office did nothing to assist, his history with forged documents did not help, and a final jail was when a liberal in a face book post said that the canberra labor party could not account for 70million dollars of party funds (noting that the labor party does not have assets any where near that value), that liberal American fed the post to read ACT government funds. The liberal was caught out lying. No wonder these liberals lost the election.

Jon McLeod Jon McLeod 5:29 pm 18 Oct 20

ACT Liberals obviously must move even further to the right if they want to start winning elections. The electorate needs a real alternative to progressive, inner-city, woke, limp-wristed, Chardonnay-sipping, socialist agendas. Mandatory conscription for anyone to the left of Miranda Devine is the only way out of this cultural Marxist wasteland.

    Catherine Higgins Catherine Higgins 6:25 pm 18 Oct 20

    Jon McLeod so wrong a move to the business side is desperately required

    Called small l liberalism I believe

    Catherine Higgins Catherine Higgins 6:26 pm 18 Oct 20

    Jon McLeod belco party were close

John Garvey John Garvey 5:09 pm 18 Oct 20

"The party had attempted to re-brand themselves as socially conscious and moderate" Except we know spin when we see it. The Liberals lost the election the day they elected Coe as leader.

Justin Wakefield Justin Wakefield 5:01 pm 18 Oct 20

Party room battles? How about their simple minded typical Liberal party policies and lying?!

Justin Watson Justin Watson 4:36 pm 18 Oct 20

This article is quite concerning. It sounds like Coe may not even be challengeable by a centre leaning candidate, because the conservative right have too much power and rather than relinquish some of that power to give the Liberals a chance to win the election, they rather hold onto the power and keep getting beaten. Says alot about those people holding the power and glad they didn't get anymore.

    Rowan Parr Rowan Parr 4:43 pm 18 Oct 20

    Justin Watson maybe those in power would prefer to win at training rather than in the actual game.

    Jayne Denise Jayne Denise 4:54 pm 18 Oct 20

    I'm happy for them to keep getting beaten 🤣🤣

    Catherine Higgins Catherine Higgins 6:23 pm 18 Oct 20

    Justin Watson they could always just join up with the belco party and seriously challenge the labour greens next time

    A great campaign by coe we need some competition in this town!!!

    Peter Campbell Peter Campbell 6:53 pm 22 Oct 20

    What moderate would join the Libs these days? With so many homophobes, Trumpettes and climate science deniers, what reasonable moderate person would look at them and think 'That's the party I'd like to join.'?

Janet Mulgrue Janet Mulgrue 4:06 pm 18 Oct 20

How about picking up the corflutes that are all over gungahlin. Guess whose name is on most of them

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 4:02 pm 18 Oct 20

Ultra Conservative, not liberal and zero "wham" Policies

Bob Holbert Bob Holbert 3:58 pm 18 Oct 20

Well developed, believable policies and decent candidates - would be a start.

Jason Ezra Jason Ezra 3:50 pm 18 Oct 20

A couple of suggestions:

- detach yourselves from the religious right and culture warriors (battling the gays, abortion, transgender issues etc is at odds with the average Canberran)

- soften your ideological neoliberal free market approach (you’re amongst an educated left-leaning majority population that doesn’t buy it)

- vet your candidates (Google is your friend);

- stop with the shallow slogans and gimmicks (ditch the boxing gloves etc)

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 4:29 pm 18 Oct 20

    Mike Bolton Yes all parties have these factions. There is not just 2 views on every issue. The political spectrum is quite wide, but more people will be more accepting of policies closer to centre than on the far fringes. The Liberals had the far right infiltrate the party around the early 2000's and federally its worked but been very divisive but locally they have lost traction.

    Alison Brittliff Alison Brittliff 5:02 pm 18 Oct 20

    Jason Ezra as usual, you are spot on

    Jason Ezra Jason Ezra 5:35 pm 18 Oct 20

    Mike Bolton the ACT Libs have embraced the religious right and culture warriors, primarily through their targeting of religious groups. Those groups haven’t latched on - they were invited in.

    Jason Ezra Jason Ezra 6:02 pm 18 Oct 20

    Mike Bolton how can you suggest that they weren’t invited in? There’s been years of deliberate outreach to religious groups in the ACT by the Liberals. Why do you think that they weren’t able to take moderate positions on sexuality issues? The party is driven by its members, not the other way around.

    Jason Ezra Jason Ezra 6:09 pm 18 Oct 20

    Mike Bolton well then I’m not sure what the thrust of your comments are about then? If you’re not a Liberal, then it seems you’re basically saying ‘whatabout Labor?’

    When we’re talking about why the Libs lost...

Annie Martin Annie Martin 3:40 pm 18 Oct 20

Say it with me.


Hans Dimpel Hans Dimpel 3:38 pm 18 Oct 20

they need to start putting what Canberrans want first, rather than their historic ideology.

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