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

Mike Seccombe on if we are seeing the beginning of the end of Australia's Liberal Party.

The men who killed the Liberal Party

Read Transcript

The Liberal Party is now in the political wilderness.

As well as a devastating federal election loss, the party is only in government in New South Wales and Tasmania.

The immediate reaction to the recent federal election focused on Scott Morrison’s personal approval and a series of scandals in the last term of government. 

But is there a bigger decline happening? Is something irreparably broken inside what was once Australia’s most electorally successful political party?

Today, senior correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe on if we are seeing the beginning of the end of Australia's Liberal Party.

Guest: Senior correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

ELLE:
From Schwartz Media, filling in for Ruby Jones, I’m Elle Marsh, this is 7am.

The Liberal Party is now in the political wilderness.

As well as a devastating federal election loss, the Party is only in government in New South Wales and in Tasmania.

The immediate reaction to the recent federal election focused on Scott Morrison’s personal approval and a series of scandals in the last term of government. 

But is there a bigger decline happening here? Is something irreparably broken inside what was once Australia’s most electorally successful political party?

Today, senior correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe, on if we are seeing the beginning of the end of Australia's Liberal Party.

It’s Thursday June 23rd.

[Theme Music Ends]

ELLE:
Mike, you've spent the last month or so really digging into the collapse of the Liberal Party post-election and where they go to from here. What is the state of the Federal Liberal Party right now and why do you think it's worth unpacking?

MIKE:
Well, the federal election result hardly needs to be said, was terrible for the party. You know, they got thoroughly trounced, but it's even worse than you might think. And that's because we're not just looking at a party that might be rebuilding off one bad loss. The Liberal Party vote has been declining all around Australia and and it's been doing so for years. 

So if you look at the last 20 federal, state and territory elections that's going back to 2014, the Coalition saw its vote share fall in 19 out of those 20 elections by an average of almost 12 points. And, this is all pretty staggering and it strongly suggests that the problem with the Liberal Party now isn't just a matter of, rebranding from Scott Morrison or, you know, after a few weeks of bad news stories.There's a longer term structural decline happening here. 

And since the election, it seems the only answer the party has has been to install another hard right leader, that is Peter Dutton, who in turn revealed a ministry practically devoid of moderate voices, you know, stacked with people like Angus Taylor and Michael Sukkar and Michaelia Cash 

So, essentially, increasingly, the voters are just not buying what the liberals are selling. You know, and I think behind it all, you know, as the country has become more progressive, the liberals have gone in exactly the opposite, opposite direction. And that's, you know, a potential existential crisis for the party. And this is something that's not just happening at the federal level.

ELLE:
Yeah. So, Mike, you say this is happening all around the country, not just at a federal level. What's the situation when it comes to the state liberal parties?

MIKE:
Well, if we let let's take a little run around the country, shall we? 

At the moment, there's only one state in which the Conservatives hold a majority and that's Tasmania and it's only a majority of one seat. The Coalition is in a tenuous minority government in New South Wales and everywhere else it's in opposition. 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:
“History has been made in Queensland. Annastacia Palaszczuk is on track to form a majority government after a stunning victory. Voters return the Premier for a third term.” 

MIKE:
In Western Australia. There had been warnings inside the party for years about branch stacking by, you know, conservatives, particularly evangelical conservative churches that was driving away traditional supporters and those warnings were ignored

And at the most recent election, they were all but wiped out. There are only two Liberal members left in the Lower House. 

Archival Tape -- Green:
“Well, look, it was a complete, not a landslide. There's no other word for it, it's rare for a major party to ever reach 50%. But that was just an astonishing result…”

MIKE:
South Australia, to another state that's seen an incursion by the Christian right nonetheless. 

Archival Tape -- Reporter:
“Peter Malinauskas is the new South Australian Premier. After a landslide victory against the Liberal Government, the result brings to an end….”

MIKE:
History repeats with minor variations in Victoria, you know, a right wing that is both dominant and politically unpopular and I might say pretty inept. 

Archival Tape -- Sky reporter:
“We have seen this time and time again in basically every state except NSW, that they're completely weak, they've vacated the field. Nobody knows even who the leader is in Victoria. You know, they don't know who the leader is in Queensland.”

MIKE:
So so clearly, this is not just a federal problem. It's not just Scott Morrison's fault. This is an institutional problem for the Liberal Party across the country.

ELLE:
But Mike, the Liberal Party aren’t moving to the right everywhere. The New South Wales Liberal Party this week has signalled a different shift - announcing that they're going to fly the Aboriginal flag from the Harbour Bridge and do their own shared equity scheme – policies you might think come from a conservative government. That’s a very different vision to where the rest of the party is heading isn’t it?  

MIKE:
Well, it is very interesting, isn't it? I would make a couple of points. First of all, most of those teal independents won elections in New South Wales and and I think that that's had the effect of concentrating the minds of the New South Wales State Government. And I think Dominic Perrottet, although he comes from the right of the party, I think he can see which way the wind's blowing. 

They are definitely, it seems to me, going to a much more progressive agenda than we've seen from a Liberal Party for a long time. So it may well be, you know, if if their budget goes. Stone Well, and if they succeed at the next election, it may well be that they show the way back for the broader party.

ELLE:
And I suppose for now it doesn’t look like the Federal Party or the other state parties are really following that path across the country in all levels of government, federal, state and local, the Liberal Party has continued to lose public support and as it's morphed into a more what seems like a right wing conservative party. So how did the party get to this point where it's now seemingly facing an existential crisis?

MIKE:
Well, I trace it back decades. I trace it back to the rise of John Howard. 30 plus years ago, the dispute between the moderates and the conservatives was pretty decisively won. And John Howard held office for almost 12 years until 2007. So, you know, under Howard, moderates saw their aspirations in the parliament sidelined, others lost their preselections. The rank and file became increasingly dominated by conservative people. 

And I might say, I kind of observed this happening incrementally when I first joined the Canberra Press Gallery way back in 1986, you know, the heyday of the Hawke government, you know, there was more focus, I think, on the big issues and much less focus on creating division for its own sake. And the Liberal Party, too, was was much more of a broad church in those days, as I might say, its founder, Sir Robert Menzies intended.

Archival Tape -- John Howard:
“So far as I'm concerned, the prime goal of the Opposition now is to attack the Labour Party, to expose the weaknesses of the Hawke Labour government”

MIKE:
It was John Howard who first diverged from that centrist idea that the Liberal Party was founded on and indeed declared himself proudly to be the most conservative leader of the party ever had. So Howard was, I guess, the godfather of today's version of the Liberal Party, you know, much more right leaning than it was.

Archival Tape -- John Howard:
“We have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come….”

MIKE:
And he was helped along the way by by people that that were employed by the party. 

A couple that most people wouldn't have heard of, Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor. They were pollsters, strategists brought in to to employ US style, Republican style, tactics of of division and negative politics in general, I guess you'd say. And that strategy led to some historic wins in the Tampa election, stuff over land rights and so on. But it also sowed the seeds, I think, of long term decline for the party.

ELLE:
We’ll be back in a moment.

[Advertisement] 

ELLE:
Mike, we've been talking about the Liberal Party, and you mentioned there are two men that have been somewhat key architects of this strategy that the Liberals have been employing for the last 20 to 25 years. Can you tell me a little bit more about them and who they are?

MIKE:
Well, Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby, are political operatives. And they started out running a polling  company, but it's more than a polling company. And and they've been involved in in this kind of campaigning for a very long time.

Archival Tape -- Lynton Crosby:
“There's no silver bullet in politics. There's no particular technique that will guarantee that you will win the day.” 

MIKE:
Lynton Crosby is actually now, sir, Lynton Crosby having been knighted by the Conservatives

Archival Tape -- Lynton Crosby:
“The most important thing is message. Message matters most.” 

MIKE:
He was brought into the Conservative Party under Theresa May and they ran a very, very negative election campaign there. 

##Archival Tape -- Lynton Crosby: If you don't have a message that's relevant to people that connects with what matters to them, it won't strike a chord with people and so it won't have an effect on them and their lives. 

MIKE:
He has a long history of working with Boris Johnson. But they began their careers. You know, to all intents and purposes, in Australia. And they built this playbook for the more conservative Liberal Party. And if we look at the very first or one of the first campaigns they were involved in here, which was up in the in Queensland in the 1992 campaign

Archival Tape -- Dramatic ad:
“Today in Queensland, a woman's life can be worth as little as 15 months. Mother of four, Suzanne Stafford was murdered around Christmas 1991. Her killer could be free by August next year.” 

MIKE:
And the Conservatives then campaigned very strongly on claims that the then Labor government had blood on its hands after a prisoner who was out on early release committed a murder. And and this was an almost direct style from from the campaign that had been a campaign that had been running in America against a Democratic presidential candidate.

Archival Tape -- Rob Borbidge (1992 Nationals Party leader):
“Under Labor robbery has increased by 66%. Under Labor assaults have increased by 32,% and the Labor break and entry has increased by 58%...”

MIKE:
So, you know, so after that, they came into the into the big leagues, you know, in federal politics, they were heavily involved in Howard's victory in 96. 

And you can see through the Howard years, you can see sort of a, you know, Crosby/Textor pattern emerging again and again, you know, targeting voters fears about their safety, presenting conservative politics as as the side that will keep you safe and secure.

Archival Tape -- John Howard:
“Can I say to you, and my first words are addressed to all of the people of Australia, that I am very conscious of the enormous responsibility that has been placed up me and upon my colleagues by the verdict of the Australian people today.”

MIKE:
You know, the stand out example, I guess, was the children overboard affair, which won the 2001 election, you know, which involved promoting a lie that asylum seekers, and I'm not saying Crosby Textor was specifically, you know, responsible for formulating the lie, but the campaign technique was was certainly of a kind with this, which was, essentially finding out, finding an outgroup and and magnifying the threat posed by that outgroup. 

So in this case, you know, these asylum seekers are so ruthless and so desperate, they will throw their own children into the water in order to gain access to Australia, which is a wild exaggeration. 

ELLE:
Hmm. So we've seen this strategy being used for almost a couple of decades now, it seems, with the Liberal Party and it seems to have worked in the past. But why isn't it working for the Liberal Party today, Mike?

MIKE:
Well, I spoke to a number of political scientists and other academics about about these strategies. And the essence of it is essentially that the public's become to see through them. 

So at this election, of course, the the the Morrison government seised on a new external threat. You know, the Chinese Communist Party. The suggestion here was that that that Labor were the Manchurian candidates, that they were actually, more or less agents for the Chinese Communist Party. And and this was ridiculous. 

I mean, one political scientist I spoke to, James Murphy, suggested that he didn't think that the government even thought that it would work. He called it a dead cat strategy. And a dead cat strategy, just just to clarify, is when debate is concentrating on your failings and you need to change the debate in a hurry, you throw a metaphorical dead cat on the table and go look a dead cat on the table and hopefully people will forget what they were talking about. 

ELLE:
And so it seems that these political strategies did work for short term gains such as the Tampa affair, and how it but surely they've done some long term damage to the political discourse and public's trust in government. What do you think about that? 

MIKE:
So I think what's happened with with Howard is that as long as he was exploiting this to gain votes, it worked. But what happened over the longer term was it didn't just gain votes, it gained party membership. And over time, that party membership came to wield real power and eventually it resulted in a sitting Tony Abbott and then Scott Morrison as prime ministers. 

So, it had a sort of roll on effect whereby you know, the grassroots, the rightwing grassroots to which they were seeking to appeal and whose votes they were seeking to harvest actually came to be more and more influential within the within the structures of the party itself. And so the whole thing incrementally and inevitably drifted rightwards and into areas of less substance, I guess, because I think if there's one thing that marks the Morrison government, it was a government almost completely lacking in substance. It existed purely on the basis of a certain degree of claimed managerialism and and not much else, you know, there wasn't much there.

ELLE:
And Mike, where do you think the party will go to from here? I mean, if they’re stuck moving further and further to the right, with arguably one the most right wing leaders, Peter Dutton -  but this move is losing them support, will they ever reset?

MIKE:
Well, I don't know. You know, even if Peter Dutton, you know, had men of the right, even if he were minded to try to shift the party back close to the centre, you know, there's enormous difficulties. You know, they're still in coalition with the National Party. They're clearly having and increasingly having problems finding substantial candidates because good people for various reasons don't want to join up. 

So it's hard to see, you know, and it makes me think back, I have to say, and it made a number of the people I was speaking to think back to the very founding of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party was built from the wreckage of its conservative predecessor, the United Australia Party, which was dissolved after after a series of defeats and and Sir Robert Menzies, Robert Menzies then built the new party saying that its predecessor had become to too divisive, too conservative, too beholden to vested interests. You know, it sounds like a familiar story, doesn't it? 

And and some people are wondering, and I'm not saying it's going to happen, but some people are wondering, if the conservative side of politics needs to have that kind of total implosion again at the end of its its life cycle and and then Phoenix like re-emerge in a new form. 

So, you know, I don't know. But all I can tell you is that they're in desperate trouble at the moment.

ELLE:
Mike, thanks so much for chatting with me today.

MIKE:
Pleasure

[Advertisement]

ELLE:
Also in the news today,

The NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority has given Crown Resorts conditional approval to open a casino in Sydney’s Barangaroo complex.

The decision comes over a year after the lengthy public inquiry into Crown which exposed allegations of money laundering and ultimately deemed the company was unfit to hold a gaming licence.

And the federal workplace watchdog has confirmed that eleven Australian universities are being investigated for wage theft.

The Fair Work ombudsman Sandra Parker said investigating the tertiary education sector was on this years priority list as the underpayment of staff had become a systemic issue.

I’m Elle Marsh. This is 7am. See you tomorrow.

 

Host

Elle Marsh is a features and field producer at 7am, a daily podcast from The Saturday Paper.

Guest

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.