It is easy to catastrophise electoral outcomes. The byelection loss in Aston was bad for the Liberal Party. Very bad. However, if the messages from this electoral drubbing are heard and the wake-up call seized, then good can come of bad.
The impact of changing social and demographic trends sees the Liberal Party holding just one in five metropolitan electorates. Millennials have substituted Baby Boomers as the biggest voting demographic. Migration has turbocharged urbanisation, making our big cities even bigger. Professional women are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce.
It’s no time to be a party struggling with women, migrants, urban or younger voters. Not if you want to win. Yet there is also an opportunity for Liberals with voters less loyal and more willing to switch, if the reasons are compelling. The Liberal challenge is to make those who have turned away think again.
We must recommit to and refresh our values. The principles of liberalism are enduring, as are those of conservatism. But they must be applied in a modern context. Menzies shaped a party for the second Elizabethan era, not the Edwardian era. Today’s Liberal Party needs to address the attitudes and challenges of the mid-21st century, not the late 20th century.
The Liberal Party should stand up for all families and all that matters to them, regardless of their construct or backgrounds. I live what many would consider a traditional, conservative life: wife, two children and a mortgage. Yet among my friends I count people in complicated step-parenting arrangements, hard-working single parents and same-sex parents. So long as they love and provide for their children, contribute to society and are good friends, I love them all equally. I don’t judge them and nor do most other (or former) Liberal voters.
The perceptions of intolerance created by some hasn’t just cost the votes of those who feel judged, it has hurt the Liberal Party among all people who reject nastiness or divisiveness. We must be the party of inclusion in which all families who contribute and aspire see relevance.
Liberals have an incredible track record on job creation. This equity must be maintained, through pro-growth policies like trade liberalisation. Home ownership is a different story. Having declined for decades, a large proportion of young people now believe home ownership is beyond reach.
Reversing this decline must be a priority for a successful society, viable economy and the Liberal Party itself. This is an opportunity to re-engage with younger voters and a basis upon which to convince their parents and grandparents of economic reforms necessary to put buyer-occupiers in the pole position.
As advocates of keeping government no bigger than it need be, we must be relentless in highlighting the link between the tax Australians pay and the size of government. Liberals should advocate limits to spending lest the tax required for unlimited spending stifle economic prosperity. At the core of how Liberal values deliver better opportunities and fund better services, we must champion entrepreneurialism. Liberal policy should lead Australia to grasp opportunities in modern sectors such as the gig economy, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
Whether they are big or small companies, we should celebrate the opportunities and wealth created by business for Australia because their success turns aspirations into realities. When enterprise is attacked, so are Liberal values.
Conservative values are consistent with conserving our environment. After decades of confused messaging, the modern Liberal Party should without qualification acknowledge the need for Australia to play its role – a leading role – in conserving our planet by reducing global emissions. We cannot and should not out-green the Greens, but we should embrace both scientific evidence and mainstream opinion.
Furthermore, we should aspire to a broad political consensus on how the parties of government address climate change. From independent monetary policy to national security settings or our social safety net, Australia benefits from areas of relative bipartisanship. Although Australia’s emissions have reduced faster than many nations, the internationally complex, multi-decadal and economically risky task of emissions reduction deserves an attempt at policy consistency and bipartisanship. This would also create more space in the public debate to drive voter behaviour on other policy challenges.
The above framing of the Liberal Party’s values is far from exhaustive. For modern relevance we also need to get new people engaged, especially in candidate selection. A great shame of losing Aston is that, having preselected a talented young professional woman of Indian heritage, we then lost the seat. We need many more local versions of Roshena Campbell in winnable seats, and we should consider international models of community preselections, including “Voices Of” campaigns, to achieve that outcome.
Politics has cycles. Things will ultimately get tough for Labor. But the more fit-for-purpose the Liberal Party is, the easier it will be to make that happen. Now is no more a time for catastrophising than it is for Liberals to bury their heads in the sand; it must be a time for change and action.