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.
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.