Politics Analysis

Lack of media scrutiny helped the Liberals lose their way

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

With a compliant mainstream media failing to hold it to account, the Liberal Party is completely out of touch with voters' opinions and its own failures, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

MUCH HAS BEEN SAID about the crisis the Liberal Party faces after heavy electoral losses in the NSW Election and then the Federal by-election in Aston. These losses follow similarly humiliating defeats in Victoria (2023), South Australia (2022), Western Australia (2021) and Queensland (2020). In the 2022 Federal Election, the Liberals not only lost to a majority Labor Government but also numerous blue-ribbon seats to teal Independents.

After most of these losses, Liberal Party members and supporters have publicly turned on each other. Moderates blame conservatives for being too extreme and conservatives blame moderates for not being extreme enough.

Amongst the infighting and recriminations, Liberal politicians, strategists and commentators seem consistently shocked that the public has turned on them by either throwing them out of office or pushing them further into opposition wilderness.

In these electoral post-mortems, Liberals regularly complain their brand is tarnished and question the image voters have of their party.

A perfect example of this was an unnamed Liberal after the Aston by-election loss telling The Guardian:

“They [voters] think we’re a bunch of racist, anti-gay and anti-abortion nutters.”

The inference is always that it’s just the voter’s view of the Liberal brand which is problematic, not the Liberal brand itself. There seems little attempt to scrutinise how the problem is not one of perception, but of reality.

How could it be that the Liberal Party is so out of touch with the electorate, that it doesn’t see these electoral defeats coming? How could it come as a surprise to it that voters have turned against it, not because of what voters think it is, but because of what voters know it is?

A big contributor to the Liberals’ disconnect with voters and their failure to recognise the public’s distaste for their politics, is the lack of scrutiny of Liberal Party governments and oppositions in the mainstream media.

I like to think of media scrutiny as providing political boundaries. Notionally, political media exists to call out bad political behaviour. If a politician steps outside of the boundaries of public interest, is corrupt, creates scandals and basically treats voters badly, the public is meant to hear about it.

The threat of bad press is also meant to act as a deterrent to bad behaviour. In the same way as you discipline young children when they’re badly behaved to teach them right from wrong, news media is meant to hold politicians to account.

When those boundaries aren’t reinforced, children turn into badly behaved adults. When politicians aren’t adequately scrutinised, they lose touch with public standards of decency. Their bad behaviour continues to destroy their reputations and by the time they get to an election, they are so unpopular, they get voted out. It’s not rocket science.

When you look at the state of political media in Australia, it’s not hard to see how Liberals were lulled into a false sense of security over their electoral popularity.

The two biggest media companies – Murdoch media and many parts of Nine – produce pro-Liberal propaganda. Rather than holding Liberals to account, Liberal scandals are hidden and their policy positions – no matter how unpopular in the electorate – are applauded. On policies like climate change action, these outlets campaigned against Labor’s climate policies, actively discouraging Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull from taking action, lest they be ousted from power.

These outlets also act as self-reinforcing echo chambers for Liberal politicians, telling the Liberals they’re doing a great job and Labor are the baddies. It’s no wonder Liberals get quite a shock when they learn differently on polling day and suddenly realise that voters actually want climate action, thank you very much.

In the rest of the media, whenever Left-leaning outlets like The Guardian, The Monthly, or The Saturday Paper criticise Liberal politicians over scandals like Robodebt, Liberals just write them off as “Lefty media” and assume Liberal voters don’t care about such things. The same goes for the ABC (which is not Left-wing), which is written off by the Liberals as Lefty and therefore irrelevant.

Outside the mainstream media, the Liberals also ignore critics in independent media – like Independent Australia – and on social media who do an excellent job of holding them to account and publicising their bad behaviour.

When all the Liberals hear every day in the media is “You’re doing a great job, keep going” and they disregard negative coverage, it’s no wonder they’re so shocked when reality slaps them in the face on election day.

It turns out Australian voters in their majority are sick of Liberal government scandals, lack of ethics, corruption and wrongdoing. They have shown across multiple elections that they want climate action, are tolerant and welcoming of diversity, oppose bigotry, support workers’ rights and can see that the Liberals only care about the big end of town.

Liberal Leader Peter Dutton’s Sky News cheer squad might think it’s wonderful that the Liberal Party are opposing the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. I wonder if Dutton has given any thought to what the majority of voters think of this decision.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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