Shellshocked Liberals are preparing for a leadership change to Peter Dutton despite Scott Morrison’s loss of heartland seats sparking concern the party was punished for abandoning its socially liberal roots.
The outgoing trade and investment minister, Dan Tehan, and the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, are both touted as potential challengers to Dutton, but conservatives are confident their numerical advantage will guarantee the outgoing defence minister will lead.
Although some are still seeking alternatives, even senior moderates have begun to reconcile themselves to Dutton’s leadership, arguing privately that he is not uniformly conservative on social issues. Former cabinet colleagues of Dutton cited his support of welfare measures as an example of his more compassionate side.
After losing a swag of inner-city seats to independent candidates, including Wentworth, North Sydney and Mackellar in Sydney, and Kooyong and Goldstein in Melbourne, the leadership will be the party’s first test of its ideological orientation.
The Coalition’s path to retaking government is broadly either to reconnect with liberals who favour more climate action, or stick with socially conservative policies and opposition to greater emissions reduction targets in a bid to win Labor-held suburban and regional seats.
On Sunday morning the most senior member of the moderate faction, Simon Birmingham, traced the Liberal party’s decline to the “same-sex marriage debate which dragged out unnecessarily long, but it should have been resolved by a simple conscience vote”.
Birmingham told ABC’s Insiders another turning point was “the failure in relation to the national energy guarantee”, when first Nationals and then conservative Liberals sank Malcolm Turnbull’s emission reduction policy.
That stoush triggered the Dutton spill against Malcolm Turnbull in 2018, in which moderates swung their votes behind Morrison in a successful bid to deny Dutton.
Overlaying the long-term factional tensions over climate policy, others blamed the election defeat more directly on Morrison for short-term decisions such as the takeover of the NSW party and hand-picking a group of NSW Liberal candidates including the controversial Katherine Deves.
During the campaign Morrison defended Deves after she backtracked on an earlier apology for transphobic comments, stonewalling moderates who called for her to be disendorsed.
One Liberal told Guardian Australia: “Morrisonism has got to be put to death. Morrisonism is economic populism and culture wars – that was poison for us in the city. We’ve got to return to economic rationalism and social liberalism.”
“Deves was emblematic of everything that is wrong with Morrison on these sorts of issues. [The leadership] made a huge mistake thinking that the party membership base is the voting base.
“The voting base of the party is much broader, and they voted against this shit yesterday in Warringah.”
With the outgoing treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, on track to lose his seat of Kooyong, the almost unbackable favourite for the Liberal leadership is Dutton, who comes from the dominant conservative faction and Queensland, whose MPs and senators could make up one quarter of the party room.
The outgoing superannuation minister, Jane Hume, said “as we’re analysing the drivers of this defeat, we need to ensure all voices are in the room”.
“The Liberal party thrives when all voices are heard. And the country needs a strong Liberal party.”
On Sunday both Tehan and Andrews declined to rule out running for the leadership.
Andrews told reporters in the Gold Coast it was “way too early” for a conversation about leadership while votes were being counted to determine the makeup of the party room.
“At some point, the Liberal party room will meet and we will elect a new leader but that is not a discussion for today.
“I am not going to engage in the discussion at all, within 24 hours of a devastating loss for Liberal and National party.”
Tehan said running for the leadership was the “last thing on my mind”.
“At this stage what we need to be doing is making sure we regroup and come together,” he told Sky News. “We’ve got to wait and see what happens … there’s still a lot of votes to be counted, it’s far too premature to be having those discussions, we’re 12 hours after election day.”
Recriminations were not limited to those who think the Coalition government had drifted too far to the right, with Nationals and some Liberal backbenchers arguing Morrison’s adoption of a net zero by 2050 target had harmed their chances.
Liberal senator Gerard Rennick said the party had been “bogged down in the Covid hysteria” and “didn’t fight the fight on climate change”.
Rennick said that, rather than signing up to net zero, the party “should’ve fought the [climate] issue on cost of living again, to argue that [renewables and storage] are the most expensive power, like we did last time”.
The Coalition should argue for environmental protection “without believing in this notion that a rise of CO2 is the end of mankind”, he said.
Liberal senator Alex Antic said the Coalition must not adopt a more ambitious climate policy, claiming that would only backfire.
“In many cases the people were trying to appease the climate crowd – look what happens,” Antic told Sky News on Sunday morning.
“You throw the left and the climate crowd a bone and then they just use it to crack you on the head with later on.”
Antic appealed to his party colleagues to “push back on these globalist forces that are coming through and climate change is one of them”.
“We’ve got to drown out the Guardians, the ABCs – we didn’t do it when we were in power, we’re going to have to do it when we’re in opposition,” he said.