After two disastrous elections, Liberals debate major reforms at landmark state party conference in Perth

Western Australia’s most-senior Liberal has declared today “D-day” for the beleaguered party, calling on members to support substantial reforms to its pre-selection process.

Senator Michaelia Cash was the first person to address what is set to be a landmark state conference for the party, after two devastating election defeats at both state and federal levels.

Top of the event’s agenda is reforming the party’s pre-selection process, to take control out of the hands of powerbrokers and give individual members a greater say.

The proposal was recommended in a scathing review into the party’s loss at last year’s state election, but party president Richard Wilson has put forward a slightly watered-down version.

Others within the party — who call themselves the Liberal Reform Coalition — have put forward a stronger version of the reforms for debate, which limits the number of people from outside an electorate who can vote on candidates.

Head shot of Michaelia Cash
Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash told the conference she hopes to head back to Canberra with her head held high. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Speaking to media outside the event, Senator Cash seemingly indicated that she supported the more-robust version but would vote for the watered-down one if necessary.

“I’ll back the amendment as well and, if it doesn’t get up, I am still backing reform. Full stop. That is it,” she said.

As today’s conference began, Senator Cash sought to inspire the party faithful, wounded by two disastrous election results, by speaking of the members’ shared belief in “Liberal party values”, and of a three-year plan to take back government.

Senator Cash spent much of her speech criticising the Albanese government, including for winding back the powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

However, before introducing a video message from federal Liberal leader Peter Dutton, who could not attend due to family commitments, Senator Cash made her feelings on reform clear.

“I hope when I get to Canberra tomorrow I can hold my head high and know that the Liberal Party of Western Australia have voted for reform,” she said, “have voted to change our party, have voted to say to the people of Western Australia: ‘We have listened. We have learned. We are moving on and we are focusing on winning government in three years’ time’.”

Peter Dutton speaking on a large screen at conference
In his video address, federal Liberal leader Peter Dutton urged the party to come together and focus on winning the next election. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

In his address, Mr Dutton listed off the achievements of the previous Coalition government over its nine years of power, before urging members to “come together, to make sure that we’re strong as a party”.

“Not to look back, but to make sure that we can embrace ourselves, our values and not shrink from them,” he said.

Head shot of Michaelia Cash
Former West Australian premier Colin Barnett was among the attendees. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Mr Dutton said he was confident his party could bring Western Australia “home to the Liberal Party, and in big numbers” at the next election.

Women ‘instrumental’ to Liberals’ success 

In Mr Dutton’s place, federal deputy leader Sussan Ley gave the in-person leader’s address, drawing on the Liberals’ history to inspire hope in members. 

Ms Ley spoke of how the party had been formed after the 1943 federal election, when Labor held about 80 per cent of lower house seats, including all in Western Australia.

Six years later, Robert Menzies led to the party to a “thumping victory”, taking the majority of seats in Western Australia, she reminded attendees.

“It can be done, but it can only be done if we stay disciplined, if we stay true to our beliefs, and if we remain steadfastly committed to doing everything we can, each and every one of us in this room, to win again,” Ms Ley said.

Sussan Ley speaking on stage
Federal Liberal Party Deputy Leader Sussan Ley told the conference women will be key to the party’s future success. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

After last year’s review found women were “not adequately represented in either the organisation or the parliamentary wings of the party”, Ms Ley highlighted the role of women in forming the party.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that the Liberal Party cannot be the party for women,” she said.

“We were. We are. We will be in future. There’s work to do, but women were instrumental in the creation of our party and they will be instrumental to our future success.”

Ms Ley also spent time criticising the current state government, and elicited cheers when proclaiming that leaving Western Australia’s Agriculture Minister, Alannah MacTiernan, in cabinet was a “shame”, following her comments over foot and mouth disease.