Lost in suburbia: Victorian Liberals search for a base

by Benita Kolovos
Analysis: with a state election on the way, the clock is ticking for the Coalition to define themselves

The federal Coalition is expected to take its time to rebuild following last weekend’s election loss, but their Victorian counterparts don’t have that luxury, with a state election just six months away.

The federal Liberals now hold more seats in the outer suburbs than they do in inner-city Melbourne, a result which has left members scrambling to establish the strategy going forward. Does it focus its efforts on the suburbs? Or seek to secure its traditional base? What even is its base?

When Menzies created the Liberal party in the mid-1940s, he did so on behalf of what he termed the “forgotten people”, a term which continues to be interpreted in different ways.

After last weekend’s election devastated its moderate wing, there have been calls for the Liberals to lurch further to the right, where some claim there’s a new group of forgotten Australians to be discovered.

In a piece for conservative outlet Spectator Australia, Kew MP Tim Smith, who will not recontest the election after a drink-driving incident last year, suggested the Liberals should target Melbourne’s outer suburbs – Labor’s heartland.

“The future of the great party that Menzies founded was never about the top end of town. It was and will always be the party of John Howard’s battlers,” Smith wrote.

On paper, Victoria’s opposition leader, Matthew Guy, should excel at this.

He comes from a migrant, working class background, attended public primary and secondary schools, and now raises children in the outer suburbs. Guy says he joined the Liberal party at 16, in the dying days of the Cain-Kirner government, because he was sick of the Labor party “taking advantage” of hard-working families like his.

There is no doubt there are still voters in Labor’s heartland that feel taken advantage of. But will heading down this route lead to electoral success for Guy?

The Coalition requires 18 additional lower house seats at the 26 November election to form government, a gargantuan task. Fifty-five of the state’s 88 seats are based in Melbourne. Basic maths will tell you they cannot afford to sacrifice inner-city seats. The Liberals must become a viable alternative government for all Victorians.

It’s worth revisiting who Menzies had in mind when he coined the phrase “forgotten people”. It was not the working class, who at that time were strongly linked to Labor via the union movement. Menzies singled out “salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers” as members of this new class.

The state party would do well to listen to Simon Birmingham, one of the last remaining moderates in the federal parliament, who said his government had failed to secure the support of the “professionals” Menzies referred to – particularly educated women.

Women were the most conspicuous winners from Saturday’s election, whether it be the teal independents, including Zoe Daniel and Monique Ryan in Goldstein and Kooyong, Labor’s Carina Garland and Michelle Ananda-Rajah in Chisholm and Higgins, or Liberal MP Bridget Archer who held her Tasmanian seat against the tide after standing up in parliament for what she believed in.

In Victoria, Labor continues to hold a large two-party preferred lead among women, thanks in part to policies including making kindergarten free during the pandemic and paid sick leave for casuals.

Women outnumber men in Labor’s cabinet, while there is a pretty even split between women and men on its side of the lower house chamber.

Meanwhile, just four of the Liberals’ 27 lower house members are women.

While the party has made an effort to preselect more women for the lower house, it must consider its gender split, and address diversity within its ranks, when it finalises its upper house candidates.

Meanwhile, the state member for Brighton, Liberal MP James Newbury, has sought to return the party to its centre. Prior to the election, he publicly confirmed a shift on climate change, with the party supporting net zero by 2050.

Newbury also vowed to not amend new laws banning gay conversion practices. It is believed he was also instrumental in the push to expel rightwing MP Bernie Finn from the party earlier this week.

This is promising, but the Liberals also need some positive policies of their own to attract those who reside in the political centre.

Earlier this month, opposition health spokesperson Georgie Crozier was asking Andrews to fix the state’s beleaguered health system on the same day their leader in the upper house, David Davis, was asking him to stand down until the anti-corruption watchdog released a final report into an alleged cash-for-access scandal.

This week, the opposition called for an overhaul of the health system. When asked what they’d do to fix emergency department overcrowding, Guy said he would release a policy “soon” and pointed to a 44-page document outlining key principles released in February. That won’t work for much longer.

The clock is ticking.