4 April 2021

Liberals' election post-mortem fails to get to the core of voters' rejection

| Ian Bushnell
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Alistair Coe

Liberals leader Alistair Coe fronting the media for the first time after losing the election. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

The Canberra Liberals’ election post-mortem makes some good observations about tactics, strategy and policy missteps, but indulges far too much in myth-making and avoids pinning the blame on the campaign architects and those responsible for the party’s rightward calcification.

The report correctly identifies the party’s central economic message as a key problem, but attributes it mainly to the COVID-19 response rendering the usual conservative economic playbook irrelevant, not because it was flawed from the very day it was announced.

The slogan of “lower taxes and better services” only served to underline the lack of intellectual grit in the Liberals’ approach, and while it may be convenient to blame the pandemic for voters sticking with incumbents, the report ignores the inflexibility of those running the campaign and the party’s inability to pivot in changed circumstances.

Devoid of any other options, it seems, the Liberals ploughed on regardless, digging themselves into a hole every time they wanted to attack the government for heeding the health advice or talking economic nonsense about ‘growing the pie’.

The government benefited from COVID-19 only because it proved to be responsible and cautious, acting in unison with the Commonwealth and the experts’ advice.

The report says the party failed to promote leader Alistair Coe sufficiently, but the problem was that voters knew all too well what Mr Coe stood for.

READ ALSO Former opposition leader Alistair Coe bids farewell to the Assembly

His conservative views on issues like same-sex marriage in an electorate that overwhelmingly voted for the change was a handicap, and while energetic and well-liked in Yerrabi, he came across as stiff and defensive and prone to stunts.

In fact, the report skips over the fact that the Canberra Liberals had become increasingly out of touch with Canberrans on social and environmental policies, driving many non-Labor voters to the Greens.

It misses the point that the party needs to make fundamental changes if it wants to win back those “soft” Green voters, or even former members, and attract new ones, although moving to a more centrist leader like Elizabeth Lee is a start.

The report observes that 11th-hour efforts to broaden the party’s appeal, such as the million trees policy, were met with scepticism, and rightly so considering the sketchy detail and the Liberals’ neglect of such issues in the past.

But when key business figures also shake their heads at the Liberals’ performance, you know their problems run deep.

The report also reveals a continuing siege mentality, noting the difficulty of operating without a “Liberal-friendly” media and that the Liberals will always be held to a higher account in Canberra.

If the party perceived the media as hostile, it only has itself to blame. Obsessive media control, a lack of engagement, pointless press conferences, silly stunts and a platform full of holes are just asking for trouble.

Sometimes media criticism of the Liberals approach was more in sorrow than anger.

In contrast, Labor and the Greens were accessible, responsive and their policies, whether you agreed with them or not, had some glue to them.

If one asked Chief Minister Andrew Barr about a biased media, he would chortle, considering the consistent questioning of planning, development, infrastructure and health issues in the ACT.

The report does note the constricted messaging and lack of access to candidates, but if the Liberals continue to believe the media is against them, they are again setting themselves up for a fall.

It is important to say that the party has made positive changes in its media management since the election.

As for a different standard of proof for the Liberals, it is true that Canberra voters, many highly educated and already working in government, are less likely to be influenced by three-word slogans and undercooked policies and be more discerning than other electorates.

Besides, much of the stuff that passes for conservative political discourse elsewhere simply doesn’t wash with Canberra voters.

Another key finding was that the party should start its election run much earlier than before and move to a continual campaign model.

This is fine, but without policy development and MLAs being across their briefs, it will simply be all bluster and no substance.

There are some important observations and recommendations in this report that will help the Liberals become more competitive, but they need to know the electorate better, become more representative, attract the right candidates, be more agile and work harder.

They also need to be ruthlessly honest with themselves.

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The Canberra Liberals have lost the next election too. Lee won’t stand up to Zed or anyone else in the party. The review was obviously written by Vickie Dunne who helped consign them to 20 years in opposition.

Coe tallent was wasted in politics.

Now he has the freedom and opportunity to become the used car salesman he was born (and trained by Manuatu) to be.

HiddenDragon8:12 pm 05 Apr 21

Yes, the ACT Liberals do need to get their heads around the fact that Canberra is different, very different – to the point that it is, at times, a contrarian indicator of what much of the rest of the country is thinking. Discerning differentiation from some of the policies and stances which work for their federal colleagues is crucial, particularly for the benefit of those who treat a vote for the ACT Greens or Labor as a reflexive protest against a despised federal Coalition government.

Beyond that, they need to be much smarter and shrewder at appealing to the self interest, and the vanities and affectations of many ACT voters – ACT Labor and the Greens run rings around them on that score. There are a number of businesses in this town which do very well, in a ruthlessly commercial sense, in playing this game – rainbows and unicorns, for those who like that sort of stuff, and a great bottom line. The Liberals need to learn from that, and work out how they can apply those lessons to the messy business of politics.

ACT greens/Labor are more concerned with recharging $70k electric cars than they are with looking after the unwashed* masses of Canberra. *Not inner north

Capital Retro10:59 am 05 Apr 21

It’s entertaining and amusing to read advice from Labor voters, led by the author of this post, about how the Liberals could win an election.

No matter what the liberals say or do they will never win in the ACT again simply because there are now more and more to come Labor voters here thanks to the Labor affiliated union presence in our education system and our largest employer.

It’s not rocket science at all.

Capital Retro8:55 pm 05 Apr 21

I totally agree – it’s pointless.

Agree. Canberra is lost.

The ACT Libs lost all credibility for me when they held their August press conference promising to stop the development of the Curtin Horse Paddocks. This illustrated that they lacked any understanding of the governance of the ACT. They were seemingly oblivious to roles of the ACT Legislative, the NCA and Federal Government in the ACT’s land development. Trying to spin this as some sort of underhand deal with no public consultation was laughable: https://the-riotact.com/liberal-pledges-on-west-basin-north-curtin-horse-paddock-ignite-election/397779

The author is pushing his own barrow again attempting to spin the last election result into something it’s not.

Whilst the Canberra Liberals had obvious flaws around candidates, policies and messaging, it wasn’t because Canberrans are inherently more progressive, smarter or discerning.

“The government benefited from COVID-19 only because it proved to be responsible and cautious”

No, the government benefited because of fear in the electorate, which allows incumbents to expand their power as “protectors” in the short term whilst ignoring longer term negative impacts which can be ignored.

It’s been the same across the world through many crises throughout history.

“As for a different standard of proof for the Liberals, it is true that Canberra voters, many highly educated and already working in government, are less likely to be influenced by three-word slogans and undercooked policies and be more discerning than other electorates.”

One only needs to look at a large portion of the local ALP and Greens policies to know this is patently untrue. Canberrans are just as susceptible to spin and accepting woefully developed undercooked and ill thought out policies as other Australians. The portion of rusted on voters here is very high and places the local Liberals at an inherent disadvantage.

I doubt very much they can sell social conservatism to most Canberrans and you don’t need to look at the Godless among us to know that, you just have to look at the Churches which actually have congregations here. They could sell fiscal responsibility but Canberrans are, on the whole, far too close to the reality of the Federal Government to buy the neoliberal trickle down crap because we know it for the con it is. So they would need to sell a socially progressive, fiscally balanced approach and that’s indistinguishable from the labour right. Unless they find someone inherently more likeable than Barr, which isn’t really that hard because he’s not personally likeable, they are screwed. They are a victim of the same-ness of Australian politics, as much as the Federal labour party is. Anyone who has radical aspirations won’t touch either of them.

Excellent advice except for the Canberra Liberals purging itself of any talent to keep control of Zed’s safe seat.

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