You have to feel sorry for the Victorian Liberals. Current leader Michael O’Brien was installed only because John Pesutto, the former member for Hawthorn, unexpectedly lost his seat at the last election.
Pesutto’s comment after the recent failed leadership challenge was: “We have to start focusing on offering the alternative vision that Victorians deserve.”
For 2½ years the Liberal Party under O’Brien has done anything but present an alternative vision. Many Liberals now realise that the criticise-Labor-only strategy is not working.
That’s why despite the recent leadership spill, the state Liberals are still looking for a new leader, even from outside parliament.
There has been talk for some time about Sky News host and former Tony Abbott adviser Peta Credlin, but she is focused on the federal scene.
Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp has now been suggested, the idea being to implement the Campbell Newman model in Victoria.
Newman was the popular mayor of Brisbane who was elected leader of the Liberal-Nationals in 2011 despite not being in parliament. A proxy leader, Jeff Sweeney, led the LNP in parliament until the election in 2012, which the LNP won in a landslide.
Ms Capp has been doing a better job of presenting an alternative vision in Victoria than the Liberal Party. She has called for a return of overseas students based on the Northern Territory quarantine model with charter flights and two weeks’ quarantine. She has threatened to use sprinklers to deter Extinction Rebellion disruption in the city, and asked for JobKeeper to be extended to save jobs.
Some Liberals are wary because Newman lasted only three years and lost his own seat in a swing back to Labor. Still, many are desperate for a way forward.
The party did make some headway in the opinion polls after coronavirus hit Victoria hard. By September 2020, the Morgan poll reported that the ALP’s two-partypreferred support had dropped to 51.5 per cent to the LNP’s 48.5.
But Victorians began seeing a more complex picture. The tough lockdown was seen as necessary and, importantly, was working.
And deaths in aged care emerged as the result of poor oversight — a federal government responsibility. By November 2020, Morgan had Labor leading 58.5 per cent to 41.5.
No wonder Liberal MPs became worried about losing the rest of the furniture including their own seats.
The strategy that emerged was to run little-known MP Brad Battin in the hope that enough of Matthew Guy’s supporters would vote for the spill to terminally damage O’Brien .
O’Brien survived but anyone who has been involved in politics can see the real numbers do not support his leadership.
The last successful Liberal leader, Ted Baillieu, put the Greens Party after Labor in all ballots on principle. It positioned the Liberal Party as unwilling to give comfort to the extreme anti-jobs policies of the Greens.
Today’s Liberal Party seems unprepared to adopt even this stance. Victorians are rightly asking: “Why vote for the coalition?’’
The Andrews government has shown it can and will build infrastructure to help the recovery. It has also built capacity in the police force and health system, supported new school funding and made significant advances in addressing climate change.
Last time they were in government the coalition built little in terms of infrastructure and was reluctant to progress social issues including gender equality or LGBTI rights.
A new leader might give the Liberal Party a temporary lift, but it is not enough. The hard work of developing a vision and new policies to support it is absent. And the changes needed to its internal culture and structure are missing.
This includes how the Liberal Party relates to people of ethnic background. Few in the party really understand ethnic communities — what it means to migrants to be treated equally and fairly, and to have real respect afforded to their cultures as opposed to lip service at ceremonies and festivals.
According to the 2016 census, 28.4 per cent of Victorians were born overseas and 49.1 per cent had at least one parent born overseas.
In painting a vision for Victoria, political parties must speak to them in a way that shows them there is zero tolerance for racism, and that respect, opportunity, empathy and policies to address their needs are part of their DNA.
The Liberal Party is failing on this front like never before. I know because I speak to these communities. Contrast, for example, the close relationship Jeff Kennett had with the Greek community.
The party is also failing women. According to the Morgan poll, primary vote support for Labor among women jumped to an astonishing 50 per cent as against 27.5 per cent Liberal.
Victoria’s culture has changed significantly in the expectations around opportunity, equality and respect for women. The Liberals, state and federal, need to catch up.
A female leader may help but women want concrete new policies to address their concerns.
The Victorian Liberals will lose the next state election because the party has no new vision for economic and social reconstruction within a liveable, sustainable framework. It has not addressed its culture or structure to be more in line with, and inclusive of, women and ethnically and gender diverse communities.
A new leader will not be enough.
Theo Theophanous is a commentator and former Victorian Labor government minister.