Inside Story

Aston: the implications

As its first leader warned, the Liberal Party can’t win office as the “party of reaction”

Tim Colebatch 3 April 2023 2197 words

Victoria’s fault? Opposition leader Peter Dutton at the Knox Italian Community Club on by-election night. Julian Smith/AAP Image

Peter Dutton’s focus, we’re told, is not on taking back formerly safe Liberal seats the Morrison government lost to independents, Labor or Greens. No, he sees the Liberal Party’s road back to power in outer-suburban seats like his own electorate of Dickson, where his kind of cultural conservatism appeals.

If so, he should have been playing on his home ground in Aston. These were the outer suburbs of a generation or two ago, in Melbourne’s respectable southeast. Today it’s middle-income by Melbourne standards, but with fewer young university graduates than in the rest of town, and more older married couples.

Aston has more Anglo- and Chinese-Australians than in most of Melbourne — yet fewer migrants in total: 40 per cent of Astonians have two Australian-born parents. The 2021 census found 37.5 per cent of its residents are aged fifty or over, compared with 32 per cent in the rest of Melbourne.

Yet this normally safe Liberal seat, against expectations, rejected Dutton’s party and became the first seat in a hundred years to use a by-election to swing from opposition to government.

Dutton had flown down for the Libs’ election party on Saturday night, presumably because he expected the Liberals to win the seat. Albanese stayed away from Labor’s party, presumably because he expected Labor to lose it. So did I in my preview, and so did the bookies.

Other Liberals have privately raised their concerns over Dutton’s outer-suburban strategy. The Coalition now needs to win back nineteen seats to regain a majority in the House. There simply aren’t enough Labor outer-suburban seats within cooee of being winnable. The emphatic rejection of the party by Aston voters surely underlines the absurdity of its leaders continuing with business as usual rather than coming to terms with how the Australian mainstream has irrevocably shifted course.

Aston wasn’t a defeat, it was a rout. Every single polling booth swung to Labor. In 2019, the seat had the highest Liberal vote in Melbourne. This weekend, the Liberals won just three of the thirty-two suburban booths, one pre-poll centre and (very marginally) the postal vote. With just a residue of postal votes to come, the swing was 6.4 per cent. Combining it with last year’s election, the swing against the Liberals since 2019 will end up being around 13.5 per cent.

It was no show of support for Dutton’s strategy of defeating Labor by taking back the outer suburbs.

Dutton has taken responsibility, as he should, but also implicitly blamed the new moderate state Liberal leader John Pesutto, who during the campaign tried to expel far-right MP Moira Deeming from the state parliamentary party after she figured prominently in an anti-transgender protest attended by a masked group who gave the Nazi salute outside Parliament House. Internal party opposition forced Pesutto to water down Deeming’s penalty to a nine-month suspension, but was Dutton implying that his state counterpart should have just ignored the issue?

Yes, Victoria is difficult for the Liberals: the party has been moving right while Victorians, like most Australians, have moved left. When John Howard won power in 1996, the party held nineteen of Victoria’s seats in the House of Reps. Now it holds just seven.

The Howard and post-Howard generations have seen a steady loss of Liberal seats at federal level and what seems to be permanent opposition at state level. In Melbourne and provincial centres, it has ceased to be a party most Victorians recognise as theirs.

Even Howard’s 1996 victory saw the party lose Bruce and Isaacs, never to return. Bendigo went to Labor in 1998 and Ballarat in 2001. McEwen went when Fran Bailey retired in 2010, and Indi when Cathy McGowan pulled off one of the iconic victories in modern electioneering, running as a community independent against Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella.

Yet the Liberals still had fourteen seats going into the 2019 election. Four years later, half of them have gone. Labor won Corangamite and Dunkley in 2019, and the 2022 wipe-out saw Goldstein and Kooyong fall to independents Zoe Daniel and Monique Ryan, while Labor took Chisholm and Higgins. And now Aston.

(In every one of those seven seats, it’s worth noting, the new MPs are women, as were most of their Liberal opponents. You think there is equal opportunity for men seeking selection as Labor, Greens or teal candidates for winnable seats in Victoria? I’d like to believe it, but the evidence suggests otherwise.)

The Liberals now hold virtually no territory within fifteen kilometres of the city. Their seven remaining seats are made up of five in outer Melbourne (Casey, Menzies, Deakin, La Trobe and Flinders) and two in the bush (the southwest Gippsland seat of Monash, formerly McMillan, and the Western District seat of Wannon). And all but La Trobe and Flinders are now very marginal.

A quick diversion: we need to call out some widely circulating fake news, spread by Labor supporters, which has been reported as fact by the ABC and the Age. The source is the Australian Electoral Commission, no less. You’ve probably heard or read it: the Liberals now hold only two seats in Melbourne — because only two Liberal seats are classified by the AEC as “metropolitan.”

We’re entitled to assume that the AEC knows what it’s talking about, and usually it does. That’s why it’s inexplicable that its electoral classifications are so wrong as to be ridiculous.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics, not the AEC, defines our urban boundaries. Five seats whose territory and people are wholly or overwhelmingly in greater Melbourne, as defined by the ABS, are defined by the AEC as “rural” or “provincial.” Three of them are held by Liberals.

Readers who know Melbourne can judge. These are the five seats, with their AEC definition, and their main voting centres:

Casey (AEC: rural): Lilydale, Chirnside Park, Healesville.

Flinders (AEC: rural): Rosebud, Mornington, Hastings.

Hawke (AEC: provincial): Melton, Sunbury, Bacchus Marsh.

La Trobe (AEC: provincial): Pakenham, Berwick.

McEwen (AEC: rural): Wandong, Doreen, Mernda, Wallan, Diamond Creek.

Yet other “rural” seats in Victoria are real rural seats: Gippsland, Indi, Mallee and so on. The other provincial seats are real provincial seats, covering Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong.

Do the AEC, the ABC and the Age really believe that places like Lilydale, Mornington, Melton, Pakenham and Wandong are not part of Melbourne, but belong in country Victoria? Get real, folks.

“Our brand has suffered terribly in Victoria,” Peter Dutton told reporters on Saturday night, and he is not wrong. The last time the Coalition won a majority of federal seats in Victoria was in 1996. Labor and Greens have won a majority in Victoria at the last nine federal elections. In that time the Coalition has gone from holding 55 per cent of Victorian seats to barely 25 per cent. To state the obvious, it cannot win back power without making big gains in Victoria.

But how? Dutton’s approach seems to be that there’s no need for him or the Coalition to change its brand; they just have to wait for Victorians to come around to their point of view. Last year’s election loss was a golden opportunity for him, as leader of the Liberal right, to unite the Coalition in facing up to all the key policy failures that cost it office: climate change, integrity, alienation of women, and a wide range of social justice issues.

The election of David Littleproud as Nationals leader gave him a potential partner for such an exercise, which would have been beyond Barnaby Joyce. And yet, on every significant issue that has come before parliament, or is about to, Dutton has chosen to be the voice of reaction: he doesn’t want to tackle climate change seriously, doesn’t want an integrity commission, doesn’t want a step forward on Aboriginal issues, and so on. He doesn’t want the Liberals and Nationals to move back into the Australian mainstream.

The Liberals like to call themselves the party of Menzies. After their federal election loss last year, the great man’s daughter, Heather Henderson, suggested in the Canberra Times that the party’s current leaders should study what her father actually said and wrote. I suspect she had passages like this in mind, from the Canberra convention which re-formed the Liberal Party in October 1944:

We have, partly by our own fault, and partly by some extremely clever propaganda by the Labour Party, been put in the position of appearing to resist political and economic progress. In other words, on far too many questions we have found our role to be simply that of the man who says “no”…

There is no room in Australia for a party of reaction. There is no useful place for a policy of negation.

In similar vein, Menzies wrote in retirement that while some, including close colleagues such as Arthur Fadden, believed “the duty of an opposition is to oppose”:

I do not share that simple belief. The duty of an opposition… [is] to oppose selectively. No government is always wrong on everything… To attack indiscriminately is to risk public opinion, which has a reserve of fairness not always understood.

An opposition must always remember that it is the alternative government… a quick debating point scored in parliament against some government measure will be a barren victory unless you are confident that, in office, you would not be compelled to do, substantially, what the government is doing.

I found that opposition provided… an obligation to rethink policies, to look forward, to devise a body of ideas at once sound and progressive… All of this, essentially work for the study [at the desk, that is], had to be done while the normal duties of active and campaigning politics were performed. It was not easy, and never will be. But it has to be done…

The duty of an opposition which wants to move over to the Treasury benches is to be constructive, judicious and different.

In another memoir, he explained why he and his colleagues decided not to name the new party the Conservative party, as in Britain:

We took the name “Liberal” because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea.

That is what Menzies meant the Liberal Party to be — and what it was, more or less, for a long time. But the Liberal Party of today has become the “party of reaction” Menzies warned against.

We keep reading that Peter Dutton in private is not the blunt hardliner he appears to be in public. If so, as Menzies said, opposition is a wonderful opportunity to sit down in your study, rethink policies, look forward to the challenges Australia will have to face, and devise “sound and progressive” ways to deal with them. Just as Richard Nixon (one of Menzies’s greatest fans, incidentally) was able to break with longstanding US policy and recognise China precisely because he was a right-wing Republican.

This defeat is Peter Dutton’s opportunity, his moment to define himself to Australians. As Menzies said, it’s not easy, particularly while he is juggling the issues of each day and each hour. But it must be done.

We could remind him that there is another record in Australian politics that has lasted a hundred years. The last person who became opposition leader after his party lost office and then led the party back into office was Andrew Fisher, in 1914. And Fisher himself was the outgoing prime minister, and had lost office by just one seat.

Too many opposition leaders have failed because they ignored Menzies’s advice and become simply “the man who says ‘no.’” Peter Dutton is the latest. In that position, he is unelectable, and either he or his colleagues are going to have to do something about it.

Finally, a postscript on the NSW election. Since counting stopped on polling night, the two-party-preferred vote in the sixteen closest Labor vs Liberal seats has shifted the Liberals’ way by an astonishing 1.5 per cent. Terrigal and Ryde, two seats the ABC called as Labor wins on polling night, are now certain or probable Liberal wins. Miranda has gone from a narrow Labor lead to a comfortable Liberal hold. And the biggest swing of all has been in Kiama, where ex-Liberal independent Gareth Ward has come from 48.1 per cent on polling night to 51.4 per cent now.

This reflects a growing tendency for Liberal voters to skip the booths on election day and vote pre-poll or postal. The democracy sausage is primarily an icon of the left. The overall swing to Labor will end up closer to 5 per cent than the 6.5 per cent swing estimated on polling night. And that’s why Labor won’t have a majority in the new Assembly.

The Coalition will probably have thirty-six seats in the Assembly, down ten seats from before the election. That was a defeat, not a rout. It will start this term with a base strong enough to plan realistically for a return to office in 2027, should Labor fall short of what the public expects of it. •