Lessons for Dutton: Play on the fringes, get fringe political results

The Liberal Party is at risk of demographic asphyxiation unless we urgently start the process of internal and external reform.

Following the loss of Aston at the weekend, the party now holds just 14 federal urban seats out of 79 across Australia’s capital cities. In Victoria, we hold just three urban seats out of 29, counting the semi-urban La Trobe.

At a state level, the electoral map isn’t much better. On the mainland it’s coast-to-coast Labor governments, with the Liberal Party scarcely competitive in Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia.

The iron laws of arithmetic are that there is no pathway to government when you are this uncompetitive in urban areas.

There are two significant issues at play here. There’s a structural change to the national vote playing out particularly in urban areas, and there’s been a failure to grow our natural constituency to account for Australians’ changing attitudes and experiences.

At the Redbridge Group, our research shows the Liberal base has become so narrow it now primarily consists of asset owners and voters over the age of 50. We’ve lost tertiary-educated voters, Australians with a migrant background, professional women, renters and voters under the age of 50.

A part of our demographic problem with the younger vote cohort is that the Liberal Party has internalised the orthodoxy that young people don’t vote Liberal, and the cost of acquisition of those votes is too high.

Consequently, over the past 20 years, younger voters and their concerns have been written off in favour of more immediate electoral pay-offs: housing and superannuation policies that have demonstrably favoured retirees; a range of socially conservative positions; and climate and energy policies that are out of step with younger Australians who see themselves as globalists.

Younger voters are also taking longer to reach the sort of milestones that have historically led to more conservative voting patterns. They’re starting families later, and at a time when it’s increasingly difficult for them to enter the property market.

Over the past two decades, around 3 million migrants have settled in Australia, most in urban centres, and many have since established their own young families. In Redbridge Group research, the values of many of this segment align with traditional Liberal values – they see themselves as wealth accumulators, who value opportunity and choice. They should be Liberal voters, but mostly they are not.

Liberal leader Peter Dutton and Roshena Campbell arrive to give the concession speech after losing the Aston byelection.Credit:Penny Stephens

Internally, we can only reform the Liberal Party if we grow our membership to be more representative and inclusive of the community we seek to represent. We can’t hope to know what typical Australian voters find important or relevant if we can’t see them in our branches.

And from that bigger, more diverse membership pool, we can preselect better candidates, who better represent and reflect the community in terms of shared values, gender, ethnicity and professional background, and who represent the values of mainstream voters.

Instead, in recent weeks we have seen some Victorian Liberal MPs continue to narrow that base by promoting or defending public rallies that marginalise the LGBTQI community.

This is taking place at a time when middle Australia is increasingly socially progressive but economically anxious. They don’t find the culture wars personally relevant either in terms of reflecting their concerns for the present or addressing their hopes and fears about the future.

The problem the Liberal Party is now discovering is that when you start playing on the political fringes, you start getting fringe political party results.

A key component of the Liberal Party’s external reform is to communicate our enduring and shared values to a broader audience.

The first rule of politics is to play to your strengths. In the Liberal Party, our legacy strength is economic reform for the aspirational class.

If we are smart, we can own the economy again and put ourselves at the centre of the political conversation instead of the extremities of cultural debates.

At the moment there’s no bigger or more important economic policy than housing attainability. Housing attainability is the new political fault line in Australian politics.

That’s in part because in Australia we tax income punitively, but we tax wealth at nominal levels, and we’ve allowed wealth to accumulate in property as an asset and investment class through favourable tax concessions and superannuation treatments.

Rebalancing this equation by delivering income tax cuts for aspirational voters and a more reasonable taxation regime for asset-holders is one way we can get back into the mainstream conversation, particularly with Millennial voters.

Our classical liberal heritage includes foundational values that suit Australia’s growing demographic diversity. A commitment to freedom of expression, a respect for the dignity of the individual and a belief that open and honest debate is the cornerstone of democracy: these basic tenets should be restored in place of the cultural “litmus tests” on social issues for which we have recently over-indexed.

In an increasingly fragmented and tribal polity, the Liberal Party can once again provide a philosophical framework that accepts and reconciles differences of opinion and casts the net wide in the tradition of Menzies and Howard.

Tony Barry is a director at the RedBridge Group and a former deputy state director of the Victorian Liberal Party and has worked for and with several state and federal Liberal leaders.

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