The Liberal Party founded in 1944 is the most successful political party in Australia’s history but if we pursue a strategy of ignoring city seats and focusing only on the suburbs and the regions we risk losing our status in the political landscape.
We shouldn’t forget the people in the suburbs. But we shouldn’t forget the people in the towns or the cities. We have always sought to represent everyone.
Unless we do this, we will become the doughnut party, a party which will be incapable of pitching our tent across the country as we have done so successfully in the past 75 years.
This narrow, doughnut-like, approach is doomed to fail for two reasons: there aren’t enough winnable seats as the primary vote is simply too low in traditional Labor seats and it will prioritise division over unity and tempt the party to overegg culture war issues.
I am strongly of the view that we must develop strong, differentiated economic policies and a vision to unite our team and present the Australian people with imaginative dynamic economic opportunities. That is the way back to the government benches.
But before I set out some policy ideas, I want to put to death this idea that the Liberal Party should forget seats we have held for generations.
Firstly, there are not enough winnable seats to make up for the losses of this suggestion.
In Sydney it would mean giving up on recent Liberal seats in Warringah (Liberal primary 33%), North Sydney (38%), Reid (38%), Wentworth (40%), Bennelong (41%), Bradfield (45%), Berowra (49%) and Mackellar (41%). Our average primary vote in these seats is 41%.
It would be a similar story in Melbourne and Brisbane. All up, it would be giving up on 16 current or former Liberal seats.
To replace the eight seats in Sydney, eight seats would be required elsewhere in the suburbs of Sydney.
They would be seats like Werriwa (Liberal primary 31%), Watson (26%) Parramatta (35%), McMahon (28%), Kingsford Smith (28%) Greenway (30%), Fowler (16%), Chifley (24%), Blaxland (27%) and Barton (26%).
The average Liberal primary vote in these 10 seats is 23%. It would need to double to 46% to be in with a chance of winning.
It is a pipedream. Our primary vote is simply too low.
The high percentage play here is to lift the primary vote in the eight so-called heartland seats by just 6 points as a primary vote of 47% will generally deliver a win.
This does not mean that we should give up on these seats either. We should try and throw the biggest possible tent over the Australian people. The strength of our party is that we are a fusion of social conservatives and social liberals. We can appeal to all.
Secondly, we would risk endless division if we adopted a policy of only pursuing traditional Labor seats at the exclusion of the cities and the bush.
This is one key reason why we should always put economic policy first. It is right morally and politically. You cannot achieve anything without a strong economy which is why the Australian people have rewarded the Liberal Party for our focus on enterprise.
Let’s for a moment consider the idea of approaching the 10 mainly Western Sydney seats with social policies targeted to these areas.
There is no doubt that parts of Sydney’s western suburbs are more socially conservative than the Northern suburbs or the east.
The marriage survey showed that seats like Werriwa and Parramatta recorded a majority no vote.
However the regions produced some of the highest votes in favour of marriage equality. Seats like Shortland and Dobell voted strongly in favour.
The last federal election also demonstrated that coal communities like the Hunter were prepared to support a more ambitious emissions reduction plan.
Trying to tailor policies to these 10 seats on socially conservative matters will not work because it will rupture the big tent. The cities and the bush won’t agree.
Experimentation of this approach was attempted in the past Parliament where a Religious Discrimination Bill was deployed.
Twice in the election year of 2022, the Liberal Party publicly backed policy ideas impacting transsexual people. The first was in the Bill where it proposed prohibiting the expulsion of gay students from religious schools but not transsexual students.
The second instance was the support offered to a private Senators’ bill and the views of the candidate for Warringah which proposed law reform.
Whilst it is difficult to isolate the vote drivers, the Liberal Party went backwards in Western Sydney seats to the tune of six percent and in Warringah with a five percent swing against us.
The culture war is not a war that can be won if we are to remain the big tent. Personally I support the idea of more protection for religious and the LGBTI communities.
It should not be a choice; these issues should not be weaponised. It is a morally and politically bankrupt approach.
Accordingly, the way back for our party is to stand for strong and differentiated economic policy and to eschew the culture wars. We must look after all minority groups. That will be a mark of our society and our Party.
If we focus on enterprise and fairness, we will be returning to the Menzian liberal tradition.
My favourite Menzies quote from 1964 encapsulates this simple notion: “We have greatly aided social justice. We have not just kept the right and allowed victory to go to the strong … we have shown that industrial progress is not to be based upon the poverty or despair of those who cannot compete.”
Our policy development should deploy these principles on industrial relations, taxation, superannuation, childcare, emissions reduction and budget management. That is the way to win the trust of the Australian people once more.
Andrew Bragg is a Liberal Senator for New South Wales