Wounded, impotent but Liberals could still reinvent themselves

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The report in Monday’s Age on the Andrews government’s further easing of stage four lockdown restrictions was long and comprehensive, coming in at 23 paragraphs. One paragraph deep in the story exemplified the wretched challenge faced by all politicians who find themselves outside of government during the pandemic. It read: "State Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien said the government needed to begin applying 'commonsense' rules, particularly around masks. 'We want the rules to reflect what gives us the best public health outcomes,' Mr O'Brien said."

It was the state Liberal leader’s only mention, the courtesy paragraph habitually afforded oppositions in most news reports. The TV news equivalent is the single sentence utterance, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. O’Brien’s comment was all right as far as it went – who wants to argue against "common sense"? – but it also demonstrated his political impotence. This is not a knock on him. Since the coronavirus arrived, O’Brien, like all opposition leaders across the country, has had a devil of a job. And leading an opposition was a tough enough gig in the first place.

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien.Credit:Luis Ascui

But while the lockdown was in effect, at least O’Brien had something to react to each day. Now, as the state reopens and life gets closer to normal – or COVID-normal, whatever that will come to mean – he will have to readjust.

During the pandemic, O’Brien has come in for a lot of heavy criticism from backers of Premier Daniel Andrews on social media and the letters pages, over what they see as sniping and inconsistency. They’ve dismissed him as irrelevant.

But if he’d got out of the way and kept mum, would they have praised him? Probably not. Whatever mistakes he made, they’re unlikely to have damaged him fatally. O’Brien and his party are at an inflection point in this electoral cycle, the halfway mark between the last election and the next.

The standing of the government is definitely weakened because of the failures of its hotel quarantine program, which led to 800 deaths. Consider what’s in the pipeline for the Premier and his colleagues. The budget later this month will contain a lot of spending – and a lot of debt.

O’Brien takes on Premier Daniel Andrews in Parliament in June.Credit:Jason South

The Coate inquiry next month could well contain explosive criticisms of the government and its senior bureaucrats. While the reopening of society will boost the economy in early 2021, it won’t be until the federal government’s economic supports drop away after March that we’ll have a fuller understanding of how many businesses and jobs have been wiped out. Historically, when Victoria slumps, it slumps hard.

There are likely to be more than a few negatives for the opposition to exploit. But if it thinks it can count on them exclusively to make decisive inroads on the government, it should think again.

The Liberal Party must still resolve a problem that has dogged it for most of this century: its reason for being and its sense of purpose. It needs to explain persuasively why it will be worth voting for. In all but a few cases, there are only two reasons why state governments fall. Either they are judged to have been there too long and the voters think the other crowd deserves a turn, or they are in utter crisis.

The it’s-time factor was what caused the defeat of the Brumby government in 2010 after 11 years in office. Voters handed the Liberal-National coalition under Ted Baillieu a small majority. Remarkably, the Baillieu government operated as though it didn’t really need a comprehensive agenda and only two years into its life the Liberals ditched Baillieu, replacing him with Denis Napthine. By 2014, after only a single term, the government was tipped out by voters, its lasting legacy being the state’s anti-corruption body IBAC.

The 2018 election was a catastrophe for the Liberals, handing Labor a landslide majority so large that the good folk of Hawthorn and Portsea now have local members of the ALP stripe. It wasn’t just the margin that reflected so badly on the Liberals, it was that its campaign people couldn’t see the loss coming. The issues it chose to highlight – gang violence and union influence on the Andrews government – were way off the mark as far as the vast bulk of voters were concerned. They were generated by the media, not by the wider community.

Political oppositionism became a goal in itself, with meaningful policy ideas coming second. Two years on from that terrible defeat, the Victorian Liberals still need to get in touch with the reality of modern Victoria, with its sprawling suburbs in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat. Those areas form the solid basis of Labor’s electoral power.

By the time of the 2022 election, the ALP, outnumbering the Liberals and Nationals in the lower house by two to one, will have held office in the state for 19 of the previous 23 years.

It’s not too late for the Liberals to get into contention, although they need a fair bit to go right.

A change in the federal Liberals’ long-held attitude towards their state colleagues would be a help. Because Victoria has supported Labor so consistently since the 1980s, the Liberals nationally have sought and found ways to win federal elections in other parts of the country, mostly in Queensland, without worrying too much about the state.

That lack of attention has not been restricted to federal campaigning. It has also extended to the condition of the party at the state level. The Victorian division is in poor order, highly factionalised and prone in the recent past to branch stacking.

As a consequence, some of its state MPs say outrageous and unserious things just to please an internal party audience.

This only makes O’Brien’s job harder. Back when Peter Costello was deputy federal leader and treasurer, he played a substantial role in the Victorian party. There are more than a few Liberals in Melbourne who would like to see Josh Frydenberg, who now holds the same roles, assert his authority similarly.

Something needs to happen, because the man they deride as "Dictator Dan" could steal their lunch yet again if he chooses to fight one more election.

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