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.
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.
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.
We're live at the ANU College of Business and Economics with Dr Andrew Hughes and Genevieve Jacobs as we unpack a historic election.
Posted by The Riotact on Saturday, May 21, 2022