Australia’s Liberals look to the right after election drubbing

Australia’s Liberal party, the dominant member in a Coalition government that has ruled the country for almost a decade, looks set to lurch further to the right after last weekend’s election devastated its moderate parliamentary wing.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese ousted Scott Morrison as prime minister in an election in which the Liberal-led Coalition won fewer than 60 seats, down from the 75 before the vote.

A handful of electorates are still to be determined, but the Liberal-led coalition has recorded the lowest share of seats since the Liberal party was formed in the 1940s. It also marked their worst result since 1983, when a landslide victory for Labor consigned the Liberal-led bloc to 13 years in opposition.

The margin of the loss was staggering for Morrison’s party. It not only relinquished seats to Labor but also to the Greens and “teal independents”, a new generation of mostly female candidates focused on the climate who bested Liberal incumbents in the party’s “blue blood” wealthy urban heartlands.

The triumph of the teal independents — whose branding was a shade between conservative blue and environmentalist green — stripped the Liberals of leading potential successors to Morrison on the party’s moderate wing. Among the casualties was Josh Frydenberg, who served as Treasurer in Morrison’s government, as well as a large portion of the party’s newer generation of female parliamentarians.

Peter Dutton, the hawkish former defence minister, is now expected to replace Morrison, who pipped him to the party leadership in 2018.

Dutton has yet to declare formally his interest in the role, which will be decided by MPs in the next fortnight, but he is not expected to be challenged for the leadership, according to senior figures within the party.

The elevation of Dutton, the most bellicose member of Morrison’s administration on what he considers the threat to Australia posed by China, would represent a shift further to the right for the Liberals.

Although Morrison’s government subsidised wages, ran a large deficit and accumulated high levels of debt during the coronavirus pandemic, Dutton could nevertheless heap pressure on Albanese’s administration to rein in spending as it invests in childcare and aged services.

Dutton would also be expected to adopt a more conservative stance on social issues and maintain a hardline on immigration and relations with China.

Within the party, Dutton is viewed as a capable leader but moderates questioned the wisdom of moving further to the right, noting that the Liberals had not lost any seats to rightwing parties in the election.

John Hewson, a former Liberal leader, said electing Dutton as leader to take the party “even further” to the right would not help it back to power. “If Dutton is seen as the answer, what the hell is the question?” Hewson wrote on Twitter.

Yet Alexander Downer, another former party leader, said Dutton was a good choice as he would hold the Labor government’s “feet to the fire”, and that it would be a mistake for the Liberals to move to the centre on economic and security issues.

“We have to be careful not to present ourselves as Labor-lite. You don’t win an election by pretending to be the people that just beat you. We need to think about the next election and play to our strengths,” Downer said.

For Downer, the loss of former Liberal heartland seats in Melbourne and Sydney was part of a global trend, with residents in wealthy urban areas voting for the “woke” left and focusing on race, gender and climate.

“The Liberal party will have to wear it. They will now find support in the suburbs, rural and regional areas. It’s not about the blue bloods any more,” he said.

Dutton, a former policeman, has been in parliament for more than two decades but Labor has sought to portray him as politically out of touch. Mark McGowan, the Labor premier of Western Australia, unleashed a withering assessment this week. “He’s an extremist and I don’t think he fits with modern Australia at all,” McGowan said.

Zareh Ghazarian, politics lecturer at Monash University, said Dutton’s “strongman” persona would fit the opposition leader, but that his “big test” would be accommodating other views within the party.

Ghazarian described the Liberal party as traditionally being a “broad church” that was most successful when it managed the faultlines between its conservative and more progressive wings, known as the “wets and the dries”. 

“Moving further to the right is a risk,” he said, reflecting on the success of the progressive vote in last week’s election. “Voters won’t just swing back to the coalition. They need to see something they like.”

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