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If the metropolitan moderates are wiped out next week, the Liberals must learn the right lesson from defeat

By Katharine Murphy
Josh Frydenberg speaks with voters in his electorate of Kooyong as as he looks at independent candidate Monique Ryan
‘The fear of losing a potential progressive leader in Josh Frydenberg may be sufficient for voters to rally for the incumbent in Kooyong.’ Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

We are at that point of the campaign – seven days to go. Both a sprint and an eternity. Not enough time and too much time. Enough time to win and enough time to lose.

Campaigns have seasons. We’ve entered the final season of this political cycle, the season where the soft votes firm. Strategists say the contest is much closer than the published polls suggest. I don’t think they are lying, so the way soft voters break will determine the outcome, pushing either party into a win, loss or minority government.

Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese understand that’s the terrain. Labor has a nose in front but this contest is not yet decided and – given that the combatant who wins this week will win the campaign and, more importantly, the prime ministership – the final few days will be chock full of all the old tricks and tropes, and a few new ones as well.

Morrison is running a bit ragged, his gear changes are all pretty obvious. But the prime minister is certainly not thrashing around devoid of purpose. He’s executing his strategy to hold on – a strategy that peaked on Friday when Morrison distanced himself from himself. Not content with throwing down a late-campaign Dr Who regeneration exercise, Peter Dutton then went Back to the Future. In a homage to the Howard era, Peter Dutton decided to reveal (hey, presto) the presence of a Chinese surveillance ship off the west coast that Defence has known about for a week.

While Morrison and Dutton have been busy adjusting the campaign frequencies of fear and loathing, Albanese’s confidence on the hustings has been growing. He’s settled into his campaign form sufficiently to show a bit of personality rather than presenting as a blank slate waiting for Morrison to lose.

But any catastrophic error over the coming days will end Labor’s hopes – and the party leader knows that. Albanese has spent a whole campaign trying to recover from his brain fade on day one. And given Clive Palmer – the prime vote harvester of Australia’s Covid-disaffected – is recommending preferences to the Coalition in most of the marginal seats that matter, Labor is going to need every primary vote it can muster for insurance against an unpredictable preference distribution.

Another loss next Saturday night, after the rout of 2019, will certainly break Labor’s heart and trigger significant generational change in the leadership and shadow ministry, as well as a new round of progressive handwringing.

But the Liberal party is also facing two potential disasters: losing the election and losing a significant chunk of moderates in the event next Saturday night delivers a “tealwash” in the party’s progressive metropolitan heartland.

Like most politics watchers, I’ve seen the polls indicating that some or all of the seats under challenge will fall to independents on Saturday night, including the jewel in the Liberal crown, Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg’s seat.

But insiders believe these contests could break either way. It is possible none of these seats fall. It’s also possible all of them do. If it’s the latter scenario, then the Liberal party will almost certainly have lost the election and a potential progressive leader in Frydenberg. The fear of that eventuality may be sufficient for the voters of Kooyong to rally for the incumbent.

But persisting with our wipeout scenario, if this happens (everybody heard the if there I hope) Dutton is in the box seat to become opposition leader. Our scenario then naturally tracks to the reflexive horror of Liberal moderates at the idea of Dutton being their frontman. But I suspect the reality here is more nuanced.

Obviously, Dutton is not a positive for the electoral fortunes of any remaining metropolitan moderates south of the Tweed. But private Dutton is different from the political character the Queenslander has spent a career cultivating.

I suspect a chunk of the remaining moderates would enter this transition hopeful that Dutton (who, in dealings with colleagues is personable, and is also regarded as a competent minister) would try to use the opportunity of the party leadership to broaden his political identity.

The problem with this theory is Dutton would be in opposition, not government. In opposition, the incentives for broadening identity are less pressing.

In contemporary times, the Liberal party’s preferred model of opposition has been brutal hyper-partisan weaponisation. If you are young enough to need a prompt to remember those times, this is the party that dumped Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 because he wanted to collaborate with his opponents to settle climate policy. This gesture to the national interest was seen as creating insufficient product differentiation with Labor, so the leader was promptly deemed surplus to requirements.

As well as the obvious short-term incentives for Dutton to dig in and play to his caricature rather than broaden and iterate his way to big tent leadership (where moderates would be permitted to do what needs to be done to woo back the rusted-on voters Morrison lost by being Morrison – professional, thirtysomething women being the most important cohort), there is the question of what the Liberal party chooses to learn from any defeat.

A defeat bad enough to wipe out metropolitan moderates would strengthen the hand of the internal brains trust that contends the Liberal party must now part company with educated, socially liberal inner city-dwelling progressives, and fully execute the political realignment it has been lining up for 30 years. That realignment would see the party’s base become, exclusively rather than selectively, outer-suburban and regional voters, leaving the progressive city “wets” to the Labor party or to some new political force that grows from the teal independents.

This post-election pivot is far from hypothetical. We’ve seen the Republicans in the US execute a similar structural shift – a function of changing demographics and Donald Trump’s organisational grip, which is grounded in his intrinsic value of firing up the base in a system where voting isn’t compulsory.

If the Liberals lose next Saturday’s election, these politicians should learn the right lesson from that defeat, which is about the enduring value of competency and decency, and of broadcasting rather than narrowcasting in politics.

That should be the lesson. But there is no guarantee the right lesson will be learned, and that’s troubling for anyone who cares about the institutional building blocks of representative democracy in this country.

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Dive Deeper:
Grattan on Friday: It's Albanese's to lose, as Morrison looks for some momentum
The Liberals have used John Howard extensively during this campaign. These days, they celebrate their party hero as the great…
As Labor issues dominate the election campaign, Morrison struggles
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Analysis-Hero to hindrance: Australia PM Morrison hurts party's election hopes
Three years ago, Scott Morrison's ebullient personality as the little known and newly installed leader of Australia's Liberal Party was…
PM strikes empathetic tone as vote looms
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One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Labor retains large Newspoll lead but Albanese's ratings fall; special poll gives Labor clear House majority
A Newspoll, conducted May 10-13 from a sample of 1,532, gave Labor a 54-46 lead, unchanged from the previous week’s…
What Labor and Liberal Facebook ad spend tells us about where the election campaign is heading
We're rounding the final bend, but the election campaign marathon is now becoming a sprint to the finish, with political…
Get all your news in one place