23 May 2022

Local Liberals have nobody but themselves to blame for the Zed disaster

| Genevieve Jacobs
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David Pocock and Zed Seselja

Independent David Pocock could take the senate seat Zed Seselja’s held for eight years. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

For the first time in more than a generation, it’s likely that no Liberals will represent the ACT at the federal level. It’s a historic election result and whatever the eventual outcome, the ACT Liberals will have nobody to blame but themselves.

As the preference count grinds on for the second ACT senate seat, it’s now overwhelmingly probable that David Pocock will become Canberra’s first independent senator, dislodging Liberal Zed Seselja.

Mr Pocock achieved a remarkably high primary vote and will harvest preferences from the Greens, Professor Kim Rubenstein and plenty of Labor voters.

Never popular with the electorate at large, Senator Seselja came to power after challenging Gary Humphries in a branch coup that horrified many moderate Canberra Liberals.

And therein lies the rub: for eight years, Senator Seselja’s brand of hardline right-wing politics has dominated the Liberal Party in Australia’s most consistently progressive jurisdiction. It’s a political scenario that is little short of bizarre.

Senator Seselja has consistently chosen to vote against territory rights on matters like voluntary assisted dying and same-sex marriage, fuelling deep-seated anger from otherwise committed local supporters. The party has hemorrhaged members and is internally riven, leaking to local media like a sieve as remaining members vent their frustrations and petty internal squabbles erupt.

The battle to win the branches rather than the public vote consumed the party at the local level until Elizabeth Lee wrested power from the right after the 2020 election, where the Liberals should have had a solid chance at victory. It’s an odd outcome when protest votes against an ageing Labor government go to the Greens instead of the Liberals.

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The national defeat on the weekend was inflicted, in part, by independent women candidates who might, in another time, have been moderate Liberals – if there was room for them in a party where only one in five federal members are women.

But in Canberra, the party is so enfeebled that beyond Senator Seselja there were no candidates with any meaningful profile. It’s hard to know whether this is because the party has lost the capacity to attract them or simply doesn’t try any longer.

The ACT Liberal Party has, in a very real sense, lost its centre in a more self-defeating fashion than almost anywhere else in the country.

There is a long and proud history of Liberal representation in Canberra. The Liberals have rarely had the upper hand, but the likes of Margaret Reid, Gary Humphries and Brendan Smyth (who literally wore out several pairs of shoes door-knocking across Canberra’s suburbs) served the community well and retain its affection and respect.

By contrast, the decision to exclude all media from the Liberal event on election night was an all too familiar pattern for local journalists. Senator Seselja rarely returns calls, mostly refuses to comment on local issues and seems to regard the media as a necessity only in emergencies rather than engaging in respectful, robust debate with his community.

So why has the ACT Liberal Party been so utterly hamstrung by this absurd situation?

The Canberra business community has co-existed comfortably with the local Labor government for two decades and does not fear them or the local Greens. They want business to prosper and successive Labor leaders have delivered that as the ACT’s economy and standards of living remain high.

In Gilmore, where Andrew Constance looks likely to win back the coastal seat, the Liberal consciously distanced himself from the Morrison Government’s opposition to climate change action after the devastating Black Summer bushfires.

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Speaking at the Bomaderry Bowling Club on Saturday night, he invoked the party’s traditions and the need to reflect the local community.

“It’s a wonderful party that Robert Menzies founded and we should never lose sight of that,” he said. Canberra Liberals could well take note.

On figures from Saturday night, the Greens are poised to become the ACT’s second party. Canberra needs a strong, functional and effective opposition for democracy to thrive in this city. One-sided representation serves nobody well, and if there’s an election outcome everyone should note, it’s that the independents have extraordinary momentum nationally and locally.

The ACT Liberals need to solve this problem themselves. The party must take stock of who they are, where they live and what they represent before they face electoral oblivion. As Saturday night’s events show, it is very nearly too late.

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Long may we say God save David Pocock because nothing will save the Canberra Liberals after this fiasco. This is the first time since proportional representation was introduced into Australia’s electoral system in 1949 that one of the two major parties is not representing a jurisdiction. Party members are livid!! Zed’s conservative views which include rejecting same sex marriage and denying climate change are well-known and completely out of step with the views of the majority of Canberrans. This is the same person who fought tooth and nail to become chief minister but now uses his power in the Senate to block Territory rights. This federal election saw Zed becoming de-facto Canberra Liberals leader while Elizabeth Lee and her Liberal colleagues passively accepted his far-right views, chasing him around and posting photos on their Facebook pages encouraging us to vote for him. Since the last Territory election when the Canberra Liberals were comprehensively thumped for being too conservative, they are now presenting themselves as a newly minted moderate party. Or are they just pretend moderates? Ms Lee even took time off throughout the recent sitting week following the election announcement so that her deputy, bellicose Jeremy Hanson could be pretend leader and waste the Assembly’s time by trying to wedge Labor on Federal issues. Advance Australia has run a particularly dirty campaign against David Pocock during this election. Zed has very strong links to this group and ex Liberal MLA and deputy Health Minister Vicki Dunne is its current president. Despite the group refusing demands to reveal their links to Zed and the Canberra Liberals Vicki Dunne showed her contempt for Canberrans on election day by emerging with a “Vote Liberal” T-shirt and plonking herself down at one of the polling stations.

Thanks GJ – good article.
I was once a proud liberal but then liberal somehow became conservative which became Trumpian. When the liberals regain the truly liberal tag I may reconsider – until then i will vote independent.
I seriously doubt Pocock will do much as he is just a self righteous speaker of platitudes. But it may just shake up the liberals. Here’s hoping.

I do hope the Canberra liberals can get their act together, because a poor, uncompetitive opposition leads to poor government.

Capital Retro7:29 am 23 May 22

I can see the big win for your side of politics is still not enough to purge your hate for Morrison and Zed, Stephen.

Do you have a pitchfork in your shed?

Poor Old CR – did your master lose his seat? Does Dobby need a sock?

“Side of politics!” Sounds like barracking for a sports team. How about instead of seeing things in terms of sports teams, you take a broader outlook.

Capital Retro9:45 pm 23 May 22

Just to set the record straight, I am not beholden to any political party. I was a Liberal but they lost the plot. I have known Zed for 40 years and he has few peers when it comes to decency and hard work. Just because you don’t respect his values and convictions doesn’t mean you all have to hate him. It’s you and your fellow travelers that need to take a broader outlook, not me.

Stephen Saunders12:21 am 23 May 22

Zed is Morrison writ small. Another Howard clone that expects the peasants to bow to medieval agendas.

Morrison insisted once again that the ACT and NT could not have assisted dying. He was in tears at his Horizon Church yesterday. But not a word of apology for all the years of scoffing at women, gay and trans.

If Zed and Morrison’s defeat signalled the decline of Howard’s nasty influence, great for Australia.

Capital Retro7:28 am 23 May 22

I can see the big win for your side of politics is still not enough to purge your hate for Morrison and Zed, Stephen.

Do you have a pitchfork in your shed?

Hopefully this sees Zed disappear into obscurity, and he doesn’t attempt a comeback. His influence needs to be removed from the local party for it to have any chance of being elected to government.

As a Senator Zed did a terrible job in representing the people of the ACT.

Per capita we have been receiving well below our share of gov funding for years now.

Pocock won’t be any better, may even make things worse?

If he doesn’t put the interests of the ACT first, over saving the world, he will be a one trick pony as well.

Roger Mungummary8:06 pm 22 May 22

He was despised for supportyevery piece of Canberra bashing legislation the Libs put up. Not once putting his electorate first. Zed was a description of his between election state.

HiddenDragon7:09 pm 22 May 22

“The Canberra business community has co-existed comfortably with the local Labor government for two decades and does not fear them or the local Greens.”

There is also an element of the Stockholm Syndrome to that relationship, which the ACT Liberals could do so much more to capitalise on if they focused on a vision of Canberra as something much more, in reality (not just in spin), than a public service town and became known for that – not for fringe issues.

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