Humbled members of the Liberal Party’s moderate faction have met at a Sydney restaurant to discuss where it all went wrong.
Ashen-faced and humbled, members of the Liberal Party’s moderate faction shuffled into Honkas bar and restaurant in Potts Point on Sunday afternoon for a healing session over canapes and pay-your-own-way drinks.
Even for those who had been holding out hope of forming a minority government, and there were a few, Saturday night’s result was not a shock. “There were no baseball bats,” said outgoing minister Natalie Ward. “It was just a sense of apathy, it’s time, it’s 12 years.”
Stuart Ayres, having driven around in his Ford Ranger looking for parking with wife Marise Payne, eventually arrived to a conciliatory round of applause, another victim of the weekend’s carnage in his former seat of Penrith.
In retrospect, the outcome seems inevitable. Three terms in power, a pile of scandals and a clear leftward shift from voters federally and in other states made a change in government likely. Still, hope springs eternal, and the Liberals’ hopes were kept alive by a fairly popular premier in Dominic Perrottet and a view that they would be rewarded for keeping the state in good economic nick.
At campaign headquarters, state director Chris Stone, deputy campaign director Nick Westenberg and campaign consultant Luke Nayna were buoyed by internal research showing the uncommitted “soft vote” at about 30 per cent before pre-polls opened on March 18. The tracking poll of 18 key seats bounced around like a yo-yo for many demographics, adding to the sense a miracle could be possible.
“There was always an opportunity there, there was always a pathway,” one campaign figure said. “But in the last week it became pretty clear we weren’t seeing the gains you’d want to see as those undecideds broke.”
The slim pathway to victory required the government to more or less hold all their seats or offset any losses by picking up the new seat of Leppington, the Entrance (where they ran former cricketer Nathan Bracken) and Bega, with the Nationals eyeing an independent-held seat, Murray. None of those transpired, in the end.
The recriminations have already begun, as they always do. And while the loss will partly be chalked up to the clock running down, aspects of the campaign have been criticised as lacking.
On Saturday night, Perrottet and Labor leader Chris Minns, who say they are friends, congratulated each other for running a mostly positive campaign. Perrottet called it “a race to the top” and “politics at its best”.
But behind the scenes, many Liberals are dismayed the party did not go negative enough and try harder to foment apprehension about a switch to Labor at a time of economic uncertainty.
“We didn’t go negative on Minns and [Labor’s] lack of policy depth,” Ward told the Herald. She said the government had a number of other albatrosses around its neck, including time, the mass exodus of senior frontbenchers and the John Barilaro trade job scandal.
“We spent more time talking about New York than Parramatta,” Ward said. She condemned the party’s failure to hasten the selection of candidates. “We should have been in the field earlier.”
That frustration is shared by many senior Liberals. Retiring MP and minister David Elliott was scathing about preselections on Channel Seven’s TV panel on Saturday night.
“We have to start finding candidates for the next election tomorrow … We’ve got to let the adults run the show,” he said. “We had people picked out of nowhere for seats in this campaign. The party doesn’t even know who they are.”
On Nine’s panel, former premier Mike Baird was also critical. “The party has let down Dom and the government,” he said. “He had to fight this battle with two hands tied behind his back.”
State director Chris Stone has been in the job for seven years, including three federal elections and two state polls. Having agreed to stay on for this one, he is expected to soon vacate the post.
There is disagreement between the party and the premier’s team about why the campaign did not turn the screws on Labor more forcefully.
Some senior campaign personnel also dispute the idea they weren’t negative enough, pointing to a TV advertisement in the final week titled “Don’t Risk Labor” that skewered Minns on his infrastructure plans and alleged higher taxes would come.
But another campaign strategist, who declined to be named, said fearmongering really needed to commence much earlier. While they didn’t want Perrottet out there slinging mud every day, the campaign needed someone “efficient and disciplined” to take up the role of chief bomb thrower.
“The 12 years ‘it’s time’ factor is very difficult to overcome,” the strategist said. “If you did want to overcome it, it would be entirely reliant on creating awareness and concern about the cost of change. That type of work requires you starting a long time ago because it has to build.”
By contrast, Labor targeted the Coalition relentlessly on privatisation, forcing Perrottet to rule out any more asset recycling. “As much as Labor will say, ‘oh it was a masterstroke’, it was just another Mediscare campaign,” the source said. “It’s not rocket science to create fear and confusion.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Liberals’ losses in western Sydney, some analysts have tried to cast it as a failure for progressive Liberalism, a rebuke of the environmental and social policies of deputy leader and moderate faction head Matt Kean.
‘In the last week it became pretty clear we weren’t seeing the gains you’d want to see as those undecideds broke.’
A senior Liberal campaign operative
But in the upper echelons of the campaign, that’s generally seen as nonsense. They point out the biggest swings away from the Liberals came in seats where the sitting members retired, such as Geoff Lee in Parramatta, compared to, say, East Hills, where the swing was much narrower.
“People in western Sydney care about action on climate change too,” said the campaign strategist. “And people in so-called teal contests also care about cost of living.”
The dominant view is that when the longevity factor takes hold, it is very hard to combat. Liberal upper house member Christopher Rath, who until recently sat on the party’s executive, observed: “In swing voter land there’s always this view [that] they’ve been in power a long time, we’ve got to give the other guys a shot.”
While he was concerned the campaign had too many policies to be manageable, Rath said it was clear the problem did not lie with Perrottet, the policy agenda or his moderate ally Kean.
“The fact we saved the furniture in these teal seats was down to him [Kean],” Rath said.
About 100 Liberal moderates rocked up to Honkas on Sunday afternoon, including lobbyist Michael Photios and former ministers Ward, Mark Speakman, Andrew Constance and James Griffin, whom Photios anointed as a “future leader”.
Few MPs wanted to dwell on the election result, at least not to the media. State executive member Sally Betts wanted to accentuate the positive and boomed: “Kellie Sloane was elected. Woo!”
When asked what went wrong, retiring minister Rob Stokes, whose former seat of Pittwater was on a knife edge against a teal independent on Sunday, simply said: “We lost.”
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