ANALYSIS: Wentworth and the Future of the Liberal Party

By: Dr Ian Cook, Senior Lecturer In Global Politics & Policies, Murdoch University.

Early in his career in the Liberal Party, Malcolm Turnbull openly talked about the Party needing to move into the modern era. In a way, the Wentworth by-election represents his final contribution to the possible modernization of the party.

Turnbull could do little to push his party in the direction in which he thought it should go, even when he was its leader. Worse, he lost the party leadership because of what he would see as the efforts of the backward-looking, morally conservative, free-market obsessed (Abbott-Dutton) faction in his party.

The members of this faction are ideologically opposed to Turnbull’s sort of liberalism. But they tend to justify their opposition in strategic terms. They continually return to the theme that the Liberal Party should be more concerned with appealing to voters who usually vote Liberal but who are potential One Nation voters than to worry about appealing to progressive supporters of party.

And it was people who usually voted for the Liberals but have progressive values who abandoned the party in the Wentworth by-election. They took the opportunity to vote for a lesbian who believes that human-caused climate change is real and a problem the government should be addressing, that the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers is immoral and that tax cuts and small government is bad social (and maybe economic) policy.

Of course, Kerryn Phelps was helped by the fact that the Abbott-Dutton faction in the Liberal Party deposed Malcolm Turnbull and angered the progressive liberals who supported him in Wentworth. And Wentworth is an unusual seat in that it contains so many progressive liberal voters.

So the question that remains concerns whether the rest of the Liberal Party will decide that they can rely on the support of progressive liberals, who can’t vote Labor but can vote for a progressive liberal Independent, like Phelps, and go searching for voters who might switch from the Liberals to One Nation.

And moving to appeal to One Nation voters is to appeal to conservative older voters and to turn their backs on progressive younger voters.

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