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The key to understanding Morrison's devastating election loss was hiding in plain sight

Morrison's accidental tackle at a child's soccer match will go down as one of the iconic images of the campaign. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

The key to understanding the catastrophic election result for the Coalition is sitting in plain sight: Voters haven't changed, the Liberal Party has.

The alarm bells started ringing as soon as the adviser saw the sign.

Inside a factory in Queensland's far north hung a simple white sign with red lettering.

Its simplicity is what made it so deadly.

Mere minutes away was the Prime Minister, a man in a six-week sprint to keep his job.

The offending sign on the factory floor (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

"If you mess up, ‘Fess Up'," the sign reads.

A reflective vest soon appeared to cover it up. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Soon after a safety vest is draped over the sign, partially covering the words. The adviser lingers, unwilling to move until it's been dealt with.

More workers approach, an umbrella even appears at one point.

An umbrella was brought out to help the cover-up. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Finally, under the watchful eye of the factory boss, a staff member dresses the sign as if it's wearing the vest, hiding the words the adviser doesn't want to be seen.

There's nothing unusual about a sign being covered in an election campaign.

Photographers love nothing more than snapping a politician with an exit sign, or worse, "The Reject Shop".

Prime Minister Tony Abbott photographed outside The Reject Shop in 2015. (AAP: Mick Tsikas )

What was so telling was Scott Morrison's inner circle knew he couldn't be seen near signs like this.

In grabbing the vest, they sought to cover up a plea for accountability — talk about a metaphor for the last three years.

For a man who said he didn't hold a hose while holidaying in Hawaii as Australia burned, matters of integrity loomed over the Morrison tenure.

Morrison rolled up his sleeves and tried his hand at rolling out croissants. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

April 26 had been a bad morning for optics already.

Morrison started the day in a French bakery, rolling croissants and piping frosting into macarons, with all the skill of an apprentice on their first day, working out how to handle dough.

The symbolism wasn't lost on anyone.

Just months earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron had dubbed Morrison a liar on the world stage, legitimising what Labor had long been screaming.

Later that day, as Morrison stood in that Townsville factory, walking past a sign covered in a hi-vis vest, he looked like a man at ease, a Prime Minister who appeared to enjoy campaigning more than governing.

Morrison near the offending sign. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

His campaign hoped that being back out on the road would allow Morrison to win back voters, one by one.

That miracle win he pulled off three years earlier fuelled an idea he was invincible, a political genius and master campaigner.

In winning the unwinnable election, he set in motion the catastrophic result his party experienced a week ago.

What's most shocking is that it was hiding in plain sight.

The voters hadn't changed, Morrison's Liberal Party had.

Trans rights engulfed Scott Morrison's bid for re-election. (ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

After the miracle

Last election, Morrison was a newly minted Prime Minister, a cleanskin, a self-declared daggy dad who was largely unknown.

He won that poll as a one-man band, fuelling autocratic tendencies that would come to haunt him as election day approached.

Morrison's "miracle" victory speech in 2019. (ABC: Marco Catalano)

He wanted to channel that 2019 success into his campaign again, but as it transpired, it was a vastly different playing field — which Morrison realised too late.

In the dying days of the campaign, his political mortality sunk in, and he gave those autocratic tendencies a name — the bulldozer.

I will change, he pledged, in a moment up-ending the months he'd spent telling voters they didn't need to like him. The "stick with the devil you know" strategy went out the window.

Anthony Albanese may be a political veteran but he is better known for waffling than delivering a zinger. But cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Anthony Albanese. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

"If you want change, change the government," Anthony Albanese cried, stunning those on his own side that he delivered the message so well.

Labor finally had a clear message for voters.

Liberal confusion

But one thing wasn't clear to voters: Who are the Liberal Party?

And it wasn't clear to the party itself either — the tension between the moderate and conservative factions had rarely been higher.

Morrison's rise to the prime ministership moved the tectonic plates under the Coalition.

His ascent slayed the moderates, sowing seeds that bore fruit last week.

But it goes back further than that, to a scene in 2017.

Former minister Christopher Pyne. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Christopher Pyne was in a boastful mood, surrounded by like-minded moderate Liberals.

Drinks were flowing inside Star casino's Cherry Bar as the then cabinet minister boasted his fellow moderates were "in the winner's circle" of government.

Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister, Julie Bishop was the foreign minister and Marise Payne was defence minister.

Pyne's comments were leaked to News Corp commentator Andrew Bolt. Conservatives were enraged and out for blood. The hubris of his comments weren't lost on anyone.

Within a year, the conservatives would topple Turnbull and install conservative evangelical Morrison as Bishop and Pyne headed for the exit.

Payne might still be there but South Australian Simon Birmingham now leads a much diminished moderate faction.

The moderates had bitten their tongue for three years. They seethed as Nationals threatened to bring down the government if it adopted more ambitious climate targets, fuming that their party wasn't doing more to implement an integrity commission.

Morrison with the government's religious discrimination bill. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

An 11th-hour push to deliver religious protections proved too much, causing five moderate Liberals to break rank and sink the Coalition's plans.

The parliament sat overnight to consider legislation Morrison had promised years earlier: religious discrimination laws, aimed at preventing someone from being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.

To garner support for that from moderate Liberals, the government had agreed to amend existing laws to prevent schools excluding students because of their sexual orientation. But that did not extend to transgender students, prompting the five to break rank.

Seeing his political mortality, Scott Morrison changed his election pitch. (ABC News: Luke Stephenson)

To many, it was unclear why Morrison had allowed a social issue to become the major policy point with an election just weeks from being called. After all, Liberals believe the mantra "it's the economy, stupid" and knew it would be their strongest play.

One senior Liberal later said during the campaign that the vote was a sign of how out of control the moderates had become, especially compared to their conservative counterparts.

With as many dissatisfied MPs as the moderates, Peter Dutton and Barnaby Joyce had managed to keep their faction in line as the Coalition adopted a new zero emissions by 2050 commitment.

But now the moderates were panicking, straying from the government knowing how damaging it would be in their electorates to have supported policy that would have risked persecuting trans youth.

That Bridget Archer and Trent Zimmerman voted against the Liberals was fine. The party knew that was coming. But it was Fiona Martin, the first-term marginal seat holder, who copped the blowback.

Reid MP Fiona Martin. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Senior Liberals felt she had blindsided her own government. When she crossed the floor, fellow first-term moderates Katie Allen and Dave Sharma followed her. Two crossing the floor would have been OK. Five was a disaster.

The Prime Minister's Office was immediately spinning that it was "taking the win" and moving on. It shamelessly argued religious voters would be satisfied with the attempt to offer greater protections even if it had blown up in Morrison's face.

The white flag

In that religious freedoms debate, the moderates had finally found their voice.

But it was too little, too late.

They were in the fight of their political lives, knowing back home teal independents were waiting with baseball bats, having felt unheard for the past two years.

In Martin's seat of Reid, some Liberals took glee at the prospect of resources being pulled out. Frontbenchers who were meant to campaign with Martin were sent elsewhere as the party seemingly held up the white flag.

Bridget Archer often found herself alone speaking out against her own party's policies. (ABC News: Tamara Penniket)

In the end, Archer was the only Liberal deserter to save her seat.

She entered the campaign the most marginal Liberal in the nation. A regional MP representing northern Tasmania, she wasn't like her urban moderates under threat from teals.

She had a legacy she could point to, having stood up for vulnerable queer children, having called for more compassion and the need for greater integrity in politics.

In Bass, Archer was 'their Bridget'. She stood up to Morrison when her electorate needed her to, and was rewarded on polling day.

'A different pathway'

Even until the final hours of the campaign, senior Liberals remained optimistic there was a path to re-election.

But it wouldn't be conventional. "A different pathway through the meadow," is how one senior Liberal repeatedly put it.

Katherine Deves was meant to help with that journey.

Scott Morrison handpicked Katherine Deves to contest Tony Abbott's former seat. (AAP: Mick Tsikas)

As a "captain's pick", Deves's comments were always going to attract more attention than those picked by their branches.

A toxic history with transphobic comments, offered under the guise of protections for women's sport, she was never far from the headlines.

In embracing Deves, Morrison was making a pitch for his "quiet Australians", hoping to tap into the more religious, suburban communities that have often been safe Labor strongholds.

The same-sex marriage results had revealed Labor politicians, strongly in support of gay marriage, were representing some of the areas most opposed to it.

It's why Morrison was spending time in seats few thought would be in play before the election.

The Liberals long ago gave up hope of winning back Warringah. But they hoped Deves's comments might play well in other areas.

In the end, the gamble didn't work out and, if anything, it damaged more than it gained.

"It was almost visceral, their reaction," Sharma told the ABC.

"[Voters] would say that he is too religious, didn't like he carried coal into parliament, they didn't believe his sincerity on climate change and didn't like our handling of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame."

Others argued it was emblematic of just how far the party had found itself from its traditional base.

Jane Hume says Liberals need to get out of people's bedrooms and focus on economic issues. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

"Liberals succeed when we're aspirational," Liberal Senator Jane Hume said on Monday.

"Let people get on with their lives, when we conduct politics with respect for all walks of life, get out of people's doctors' surgeries, and bedrooms and dare I say boardrooms."

Either way, the moderate Liberals felt like sacrificial lambs being sent to the slaughter.

In the end, the red suburbs didn't turn blue and the once safe Liberal seats turned teal.

Frustrations of women

It's little wonder Josh Frydenberg lost.

His successor, Dr Monique Ryan, a paediatric neurologist, speaking after her election, said Kooyong had a greater proportion of millennials than baby boomers voting.

Josh Frydenberg lost the seat he'd held since 2010. (AAP: Diego Fedle)

Take the story of a born-and-bred Liberal millennial who grew up in Melbourne's affluent east, for example. She tells of taking joy in voting for John Howard at her first chance — and even greater joy voting for Malcolm Turnbull a decade later. She'd held her nose to vote for Tony Abbott, but Morrison's Liberals were a bridge too far.

Too religious, too anti-woman and too anti-climate, she argued. It didn't matter that her local candidate was a moderate. Labor under Bill Shorten wasn't an option so she voted Green in 2019.

This time, she had a teal to back.

She'd aged since 2007 but her values have largely remained the same. She's a university-educated professional. A classic small-L liberal, economic conservative, who doesn't care for culture wars on social issues.

A teal, you could say.

Thousands turned out around the country for the March for Justice in 2021. (ABC News: Mahalia Carter)

Archer, too, sees frustrations of women in the election loss. She points to the women's march as the moment the Liberal fortunes moved.

It was a lightning-rod moment. Women were tired and fed up of the years of abuse and harassment they had faced at work and at home.

They wanted to be heard. Morrison refused to meet those who'd marched on Canberra, later suggesting they were lucky they hadn't been shot (suggesting this would happen in other countries).

"I feel like we saw that turning point with the March for Justice when women sat up and said ‘I've got something to say'," Archer told the ABC on Monday.

Senior Liberal women are all too aware of the role they must play in this next term of parliament. The party has lost half the women in their House of Representative ranks. It's why Sussan Ley, who has limited party room support, will assume the deputy leadership, offering the first signs it has heard the message from the electorate.

Sussan Ley will likely be the deputy Liberal leader. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Quotas have long been a dirty word in the Liberals, where the term "quota queens" is often used to describe Labor women, probably because it's a party run by men.

"I think [quotas are] something that needs to be considered,," Archer said in the wake of the loss.

"And I think we need to work to create an environment where it's actually an attractive proposition for women to seek preselection."

More diverse, more moderate

In the coming weeks, Anthony Albanese will take charge of a parliament more diverse than ever before.

It will also be more moderate than the one that came before it, and the one that came before that.

That the Liberal Party isn't in charge tells you everything you need to learn about the battle that confronts it.

Its miscalculation about its electorates cost the man who would be the leader in opposition his job. Without moderate Josh Frydenberg, conservative hardhead Peter Dutton takes on the leadership of a party desperately needing to reunite with its base.

Labor will closely watch his actions, knowing part of their agenda rests in his hands.

Without the Liberals on board, there is little guarantee constitutional change to recognise Aboriginal Australians can be delivered.

Peter Dutton in Parliament in February. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Privately, Dutton isn't the man the public sees. Funny, good company and caring are words often used by those who know him.

It's quite the contrast for the ex cop who has played the strong man for decades.

The broader softening of Dutton's image started almost immediately after the election. But atoning will be in order if he's to win back the lost voters.

Peter Dutton walked out of the apology to the stolen generation. He's since apologised for walking out but it remains unclear if he will support the referendum.

His approach to same-sex marriage could offer an indication of what's to come. Personally against it but knowing a circuit breaker was needed, he backed the survey that would ultimately deliver it.

Dutton's anti-China rhetoric, going so far as to compare China to pre-World War II Nazi Germany on Anzac Day, played a major role in Chinese-Australian voters abandoning the Coalition, especially in suburban Sydney and Melbourne.

Keith Wolahan ran for the Liberal Party in Menzies.  (ABC News: Leanne Wong)

Keith Wolahan felt that first hand. Running for what was once a safe Liberal seat in Melbourne, he saw Chinese Australian voters flee his party. In suburbs with a strong Chinese-Australian population, he saw swings up to 16 per cent away from the Liberals.

Wolahan told the ABC he tried to raise his concerns with cabinet ministers during the campaign but the damage was already done.

"The response often was ‘but that's not what we mean, we're separating the Chinese regime from the people' but I don't think that message and intent got through and it's probably something we needed to say more often and more clearly," he said.

Dutton seeks to recast image for party leadership

The pitch to these voters has already changed, with many Liberals out this week speaking about the need to appeal to "aspirational voters". These too are the migrants Morrison hoped he could reach in the suburbs. But winning their votes looks to be more successful if you're talking about what affects them more than what might offend them.

"We're not [the] Moderate Conservative Party, we're not the Conservative Moderate Party," Dutton said as he confirmed his candidacy this week.

"We are the Liberal Party and that's the approach I want to take. I want to make sure I bring our party together."

Scott Morrison passes the leadership to Peter Dutton next week. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Dutton's decision

After six weeks of campaigning, the result ultimately wasn't close.

Albanese took power even before all the votes were counted.

Anthony Albanese and his senior team, from left, Jim Chalmers, Penny Wong, Richard Marles and Katy Gallagher. (AAP: Lukas Coch)

He swore in four of his closest confidants, erected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flags inside Parliament House and flew to Tokyo for the Quad.

He put Penny Wong, his deputy in all but title, on the world stage, pledging a new-look Australian government would do more to tackle climate change.

Albanese's message was that change had come to Australia. You need only look to the Foreign Minister to see that manifested — a queer, Asian-Australian woman was now the face of a modern Australia.

Where the Liberal Party fits into that is for Dutton to decide.

Destroying the joint by lurching to the right might go some way to tearing down the government.

But a failure to win back now teal electorates could consign the Liberals to a lengthy stay on the opposition benches.


Words: Brett Worthington

Photographs: Matt Roberts, Ian Cutmore, Luke Stephenson, Tamara Penniket, AAP

Production: Leigh Tonkin