7am is a daily news podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Newsletter signup Submit Website Submit

7am Podcast

Former Liberal leader and columnist for The Saturday Paper John Hewson on what went wrong for the Coalition on election night - and what lessons the party should take from the defeat.

Is Peter Dutton the future of the Liberal Party?

Read Transcript

As the Liberal Party examines its electoral defeat, questions are being asked about the party’s future. The frontrunner for the leadership is Peter Dutton. But what kind of Opposition would he lead? And is the moderate wing of the party, all but wiped out by independents, now dead? 

Today, former Liberal leader and columnist for The Saturday Paper John Hewson on what went wrong for the Coalition on election night - and what lessons the party should take from the defeat.


Guest: Former Liberal leader and columnist for The Saturday Paper John Hewson.


Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am

As the Liberal Party examines its resounding electoral defeat, questions are being asked about the party’s future. 

The frontrunner for the leadership role is Peter Dutton. But what kind of Opposition would he lead? And is the moderate wing of the party, all but wiped out by Independents, now dead? 

Today, former Liberal opposition leader and columnist for The Saturday Paper John Hewson on what went wrong for the Coalition on election night - and what lessons the party should take from the defeat.

It’s Wednesday, May 25.

[Theme Music Ends] 

Archival Tape -- Adam Bandt:
“We’ve done it! It’s a Greenslide!”

Archival Tape -- News:
“Monique Ryan was the underdog but managed to take down a sitting treasurer”

Archival Tape -- News:
“And a local blue ribbon exodus is cutting far deeper than Kooyong former journalist Zoe Daniels stripping Goldstein from Liberals hands…” 

Archival Tape -- News:
“So another Liberal to lose their seat to a teal candidate is Trent Zimmerman from North Sydney” 

So this election result, John, it's being described as a bloodbath for the Liberals. What did you think as you were watching results start to come through on Saturday night? 

Yes. It turned out to be the sort of a perfect storm from the point of view of the non-government forces. 

I thought that the independents would eat into their so-called safe seats and that Labor would win a few seats. 

I hadn't expected the strength of the Greens as broad based as it was, but they were strengthening. 

And there was an arrogance that crept in during the campaign. You know, it was sort of their right, their birthright, born to rule mentality, which has been a failing of the Liberal Party for a long time. 

I think the whole issue, despite Morrison's attempt to try and make it not about him, it was his leadership failures that highlighted the problems for the government and failure to act on the three big issues that the independents identified, namely Climate Integrity Commission and women's issues. I think they were really biting for quite some time in the electorate. 

And you mentioned the success of the independents and the issues that they identified as important. Their success is especially obvious in your old seat, the seat of Wentworth, seen as a blue ribbon Liberal seat for a long time and it was most recently held by by moderate liberal Dave Sharma. So why do you think that Dave Sharma lost that seat? 

Well, I don't think they've learnt any lessons from the past when you might recall when Turnbull stood down there was a by-election in Wentworth. And I was asked pretty much right at the beginning of that by election what I thought would happen. There was a mood that the Liberals would retain it. And I said no. If a strong independent runs and runs predominantly on climate, they will win the seat. That was even though I think Turnbull's margin at the time was about 17.5 per cent. 

And when Kerryn Phelps stood, she was a very strong candidate And, you know, when she won, they dispensed with it, said, oh, look, she only won by 1800 votes. But that was on top of the 17 and a half swing. You know, it was a massive win. And they didn't pay any attention to that and didn't recognise the significance of the climate issue in what they thought was a safe Liberal seat.

But they learnt nothing from those experiences. And to continue to drift or pull the parties more to the right, if you like, which is what Morrison did. I don't like this right left characterisation, but I'd say the progressives that lost seats to the independents in this campaign to some extent have themselves to blame because I don't remember them making the big stand within the party organisation on issues like climate and so on. I thought that came to a head when Barnaby Joyce was left to run the net zero strategy. You know, you couldn't have anybody worse running that. And as a progressive, I think you would be alarmed. 

But it sort of went through this. They didn't take these stands and went through into these seats, which these communities felt that they weren't being represented.

And Wentworth is just one seat, but this is obviously bigger than just Dave Sharma. We've seen Trent Zimmerman also lose his seat. 

Archival Tape -- Trent Zimmerman
“We have to learn from the results we’re seeing tonight where undoubtedly our vote has been impacted.” 

As well as Tim Wilson…in Goldstein.

Archival Tape -- Tim Wilson:
“It seems increasingly unlikely that I will be in a position to be reelected as the member for Goldstein.” 

And even the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong. 

Archival Tape -- Josh Frydenberg:
“Clearly the people have spoken, and the coalition needs to hear what is being said and to act on it.” 

And so these losses, John, what do they mean for the moderates wing of the Party, for the type of Liberal Party that you once led? 

And Wentworth is just one seat, but this is obviously bigger than just Dave Sharma. We've seen Trent Zimmerman also lose his seat. As well as Tim Wilson…in Goldstein. And even the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong. And so these losses, John, what do they mean for the moderates wing of the Party, for the type of Liberal Party that you once led?

Well, I think the moderates, as we called. There are very few of them left. 

There's this view in the party. Some people feel that you've got to move further and further to the right, become even more conservative. And, you know, I've argued for a long time that you'll never win an election being a pure right wing party in this country. You must be central and you must have a blend of of good economic management at one end and a fairly pretty refined social conscience at the other end, where you actually do address a lot of these significant social issues. 

I'd say I don't like people saying, Oh, the climate is a left wing issue, Indigenous affairs is a left wing issue. They're not. They're Australian issues, they’re global issues. We need to have a clear position on these. You know, we keep watering them down and trying to placate the Murdoch media that ran a very hard campaign in support of the government is a very sad commentary on the extent to which the party has lost its way.

Okay and so right now the party is obviously trying to work out the way forward, how it recovers from this. It looks like the new leader will be Peter Dutton. What do you think of him? 

Well, I don't think he's the right person to lead the party. I mean one of the problems is that there's been no thought of succession, no succession strategy as you like. There'll be a number of people who put their names forward, I guess, in any ballot. But I think Dutton would be seen as the front runner now that Frydenberg has has lost his seat. 

You know, as I've said for ever since he ran for the leadership against Turnbull originally, you know he's Dutton as the answer is seen as the answer. What the hell is the question?

I don't think he he has the righ t policy inclinations. I think he costs votes in this election. I just don't think he's going to be the sort of reset that the party needs.  

We’ll be back in a moment. 


John, we’ve been talking about the Liberal’s losses in the election. The party is now at a crossroads - in terms of whether it will embrace issues that the electorate clearly cares about, things like climate change and integrity in politics, or whether it will do the Opposite - it will now lean further to the right. It seems though that Peter Dutton is the most likely candidate for Opposition leader. You’ve said you don’t think he’s the right person to do that job. But if he does take it on -  what do you think an Liberal opposition under Peter Dutton looks like?

I think he'd try and drift it further to the right - probably influenced by the National Party in Queensland and you know, the National Party were not, not team players in the middle of the campaign. You had people like Canavan coming out and saying that net zero was dead. Not exactly a unified position. 

Continuation of that sort of behaviour would be detrimental to the standing of the Liberal Party. 

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:
“I’m in the Nationals, the national vote we got swings to us… The Liberals fight Liberals battles, and the Nationals fight the Nationals ones.”  

The National Party didn't lose any seats. Now they want even greater influence within the Coalition. 

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:
“And the nationals we held every seat and our party room will be bigger.” 

They've always had a disproportionate influence in the Coalition by world standards and they want even more influence now. 

And they, of course they, their interests are very much driven by their financial supporters, not by national interest.

And there's overwhelming evidence that their positions are just not tenable and they might have some populist appeal to some people in their seat. But it's the responsibility of leadership to explain some of these things. And sometimes a leader has to stand up and say, look, I'm going to have to say things there I know you don't want to hear. But in the national interest, this is what we're going to need to do. You don't see any of that in the in the government today.

And John, I want to talk a bit more about the future of the Liberal Party, because it's now lost quite a few of these these blue ribbon seats. And that's important because they're big fundraising sources for the party, but they're also traditionally where where the leadership of the party is selected. So how do you see the Liberal Party rebuilding from from those losses?

Well, they've got to face some of the realities we've just been talking about, which they just seem reluctant to do. They think that, look, if we move further right and take a harder line conservative positions, we will win people back. You know, not in terms of the mood that has been evident in this campaign. The mood is there for decisive action. And these they don't the electorate doesn't think of these issues as left or right or, you know, they think of them as these. These are in the national interest. We've got to be taking a substantive stand on climate. We should have an integrity  ission. Politicians should be held accountable for what they say and do, and if there's corrupt behaviour it should be exposed and there's penalties enforced and so on. I mean, that's what you expect of your government. You expect your government to represent your interests and to act responsibly in the national interest. No, no. They're not just looking after donors and mates. 

You can't just keep saying, Oh, we have a plan and our plan is working. And you know, by the way, the unemployment rate is 4%. People should be thankful. It doesn't resonate with somebody struggling to pay the cost of living. It just doesn't work for most people. We do need to change some of the things in the system to make politicians more accountable. I mean, there should be truth in advertising laws. There should be fairly tight rules on campaign donations and on lobbying. I mean, they need to reform, be consistent with reforming politics, perhaps before we could see the party repositioned in policy terms. 

Do you have any hope, though, that any of those types of reforms are going to happen? Because the central issue that seems to be facing the party at the moment is that the electorate has just voted for things like climate action and an integrity commission. But as a result of that, the moderates who might have supported those types of issues are now gone. So the party, particularly under Dutton, is not likely to go in that direction.

Well, I think they'll see that Albanese will actually do those things. 

He will move a fair bit of the government policy towards that so-called progressive agenda. You know, there will be Indigenous recognition and they will be much more decisive response on climate. There will be a National Integrity Commission and when when Liberals recognise that it didn't bring an end to the world, you know, the sky is not going to fall in as some of those people on Sky News were saying, you know, mad left takeover. When they realise that there's merit from a national point of view in taking responsible positions in government on these these issues, I think that will help them reset because they'll know they can't stand up and argue that we should go back to the old world, which, you know, didn't work and cost them government.  

Mm. Well, John, thank you so much for your time. It's been a pleasure talking to you. 

Thank you. Thanks very much.



Also in the news, 


The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and Foreign Minister Penny Wong are in Tokyo for the quadrilateral security dialogue summit, Quad, with the US, India and Japan.


Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says Australia's commitment to the Quad "will not change" under his government, while stressing that climate change is one of his key strategic priorities. 


During the high-level security talks, Mr Albanese said the Australian government’s stance on Taiwan has not changed despite Labor winning the election. 




With Peter Dutton looking set to take over from Scott Morrison as the next leader of the Liberal Party, uncontested, the deputy leadership position is also being decided.


Former environment minister Sussan Ley is shaping up as the frontrunner to take on the role, with strong support for former minister Jane Hume as well. 


I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.



Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.


John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.