Are the Liberals really done for?

By | | comments |
Is this the end for Liberal goverment of our country? (Image edited by Dan Jensen)

As soon as the Labor Party easily won in the Victorian elections on 24 November, commentators countrywide shut things down, saying the Federal Liberals have no chance of re-election next year.

Media Editor Lee Duffield assesses that, asking what is making voters tick and what kind of new messages will get communicated in the coming months as Liberals campaign in panic.

THE CHIEF THEORY AT WORK is a classic “die is cast” theory of political science, but some other branches of theory also should be taken into account. The outcome in Victoria was seen as the clincher, that a party doing so badly in polls and actual elections over five years, in five months could not recover enough support to survive. Voters’ minds made up, not listening, waiting. 


Commentators who are fixed on federal electoral politics and able to watch from the Canberra gallery say the confusion and divisions within the regime will persist — no escape from defeat. Here, for an example, is a tasting of columns from the Newscorp stable, a stable overall prone to support, not dump, on Liberals, a week after the Victorian result (quoting the more journalistic contributors, leaving out blatantly Right-wing opinion writers living under Murdoch protection):

  • Dennis Atkins, experienced and commonsense writer with the Brisbane Courier Mail (30 November 2018), classed 2019 among elections he had seen that were ‘as good as certain’. After the ‘madness’ of the internal attack on Malcolm Turnbull, replaced by the ‘dwindling authority’ of ‘opportunistic Morrison’, ‘the bad blood was always going to harden and sap the life out of the party… Starting 10 points behind… the Coalition is facing defeat of historic proportions’.
  • Paul Kelly on the Weekend Australian (1 December 2018) painted the same bleak future for the embattled government: ‘The Government has lost control of the Parliament, cannot maintain discipline on its own side, confronts an increasingly hostile public and is besieged by a series of causes for which it has no answer — a stronger role for women, gay rights and firmer climate change action… Australia now enters a chaotic six-month interregnum before the election… with the Government’s opponents seizing the political agenda.’
  • Chris Kenny, Associate Editor for the same paper, cried out action stations, hoping that Liberals might somehow start to sober up: ‘There has never been a shortage of people eager to destroy the Coalition parties. It is just that they are not normally inside the Liberal Party,’ he bemoaned. Dennis Shanahan rounded it out: ‘Scott Morrison is virtually the last Liberal to think he can win the next election’.


So, we have Scott Morrison closing Parliament and running a five-month in-your-face campaign, a mad mix of daily pronouncements.

One moment the Government is finally proposing a Federal Crime and Corruption Commission, which sounds like a gamekeepers’ law made by poachers — so much secrecy in it, so much consideration being shown for the reputation of suspect characters who might get charged in public. Next moment it is relocating the embassy in Israel to West Jerusalem, packaged up with a load of partisan talk on Australians’ behalf backing the Israeli Government in its conflicts within the Middle East. It did not please either side. Overseas reaction was mostly one of curiosity about these clumsy Australians — cementing the impression that the Bloke doesn’t know what he is talking about and generally getting out of his depth.

From all the self-generated publicity, what can be inferred about this bloke put up as Prime Minister, number three in the five years of the current government? The record says they resorted to a former State Party Director, by definition a one-eyed and slavishly committed breed of cat, to see if he could kick up enough propaganda to get back some of the vote. This one, we now know, is a species of ad man fond of talking and conjuring up arguments, but not what you’d call deep. He is no objective policy-maker, no national unifier — happier with partisan lines and looking for a chance to bash into opponents.

He’s exposed himself to gibes like the one from Wayne Swan, President of the Labor Party:


The additional factor of the microphone Christianity needs a special look. People in congregations he attends must wonder at times about the ego factor. It’s a type. Where do you get these lay members, these middle-aged blokes who grab the microphone and make up their own angle on scripture? How would this one go if he went to a church where, although sharing, he was expected to sit still, listen and even learn?

Yet, importing American strategies for creating a fundamentalist “religious Right” can generate blocks of political support. It is no secret that efforts have been underway to build up a fundamentalist lobby in the Right-wing parties in Australia. It is a process that calls on the politician to identify very closely with the faithful, more than with the other electors, lavishly sharing all manner of anxieties and views. It gives a context for Morrison’s declaration last week that “the walls are closing in” on religious people.

Usually with the religious Right, the pitch to the faithful is in two parts: (a) certain issues linked to faith and morals, like opposition to abortion or gays, are set up as non-negotiable issues that should exclude and take precedence over anything else Christian voters might favour, like social justice or rights at work and (b) things are urgent enough that you need to use hard authority and go for real simple solutions. So, for example, politicians from the religious Right will tell clients that abolishing abortion is a moral imperative, the one issue they should vote on and, whether or not in the Party platform, they would themselves ban it again at the first opportunity. They can argue that while nobody is being thrown to the lions in Australia, churchgoers, what with the “walls closing in”, need a special commissioner to protect them.

Different party operatives have been interested in one case where the current Queensland Deputy Opposition Leader, Member for Everton, Tim Mander, has both a reputation for courting a fundamentalist following and for getting a good vote in the 2017 election — in a bad year for his party, a swing his way of nearly 3%. Other factors may have been in play in that expanding outer-city area, but the electorate is getting a lot of study in case the story of a drive on the fundamentalist Right is correct.

Like the “die is cast” theory, the “religious Right” idea is well grounded in knowledge about political motivation. This knowledge says the best psychology that political propagandists can apply, to get votes, is build on their base and hook onto “basics” like the influence of family or peers at work. Ground-in values are more enduring and trusted than a whole lot of messages about political issues of the day. The trick is to get it across to the holders of values – in off-market politicking away from the open campaigns – that these values are linked to the way they may vote. The politician in the congregation can do a lot of this — maybe even grab the microphone.


One more theory supports the notion of the pre-set election result for 2019 still becoming a contest, that being the “hip pocket nerve” theory favoured by the late Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, among many others.

Use of the mantra that folks are “doing it tough” must apply to many, but it may not be that strategic if there are strong pockets of voters who think they are doing alright. A window on that might be a set of official statistics that attracted some publicity in recent weeks, showing how Australians have been travelling according to key indicators. It was the latest full compilation available – up to 2016 – but gives a picture of ongoing stability rather than crisis.

The key figure might be a gross median household income of $1,616 a week for 2015-2016, equating to $84,032 a year. It is not an average, but the point above or below which 50% of cases occur. Slow wages growth or not, would that put many households on a viable footing, not flush but dignified enough if their costs are not too bad? On the biggest cost, mortgages remained stable at $452 a week, renting also stable at $350 weekly. While there are thousands of exceptions to the extent of relative security which all of this implies, these are facts about how it is. Consider “fortress family” positioned above the median point, after several years enjoying cheap credit, building a materially safe “good life”, who will have some luxury, no pressure, choosing which party best represents their interests.

Even the phenomenon of the SUV counts in at this point as a wellbeing factor. These motors are seen as beautiful by so many buyers and a key to success: excellent machinery, optioned-up with any amount of electronica, good status symbols being big with a shiny finish, safe for the children and most widely affordable where median incomes are at $84,000 p.a. — some “smaller” models currently on special at $30,000. Fairly high employment is another factor that makes for feelings of wellbeing across big segments of the population. 


The domestic economics does not link necessarily or even directly to voting. Anxiety is real so that even if going well you can worry about things going bad, like an end to low interest rates and Australians’ high levels of personal debt. At the same time, even if most people were worse off, a big enough segment feeling satisfied and independent enough might hesitate about making any change and bend the outcome. Still remembered is Prime Minister William McMahon’s invocation to limit Gough Whitlam’s win in 1972: “Trust the devil you know”. Half-buried in political memory is the Tories’ victory in the 1959 British election, held just as the first glimmer of affluence was easing the pain of dowdy post-war existence. “You’ve never had it so good”, they sloganised.  

The two-party-preferred gap in the opinion polls, over five years, has not opened out much beyond the range of 55-45% — not a revolutionary situation bound to overturn the state. Against that, the smart money still supports loudly the adage of voting behaviour that if the polls stay stuck, just that bad for one party, after five years the die is cast.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Lee Duffield
Voice to Parliament: 'Yes' vote has many enemies

Australia is moving towards defeating a referendum on an Indigenous Voice to ...  
War in Ukraine: Gearing up for end of winter fighting

Lee Duffield provided an appraisal of the Ukraine war for IA on day one; updated ...  
Pacific Media Centre gutted in blow to journalism on the Pacific Islands

The launch of a New Zealand project to produce more Pacific news and provide a ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate