Getting back on track: challenges ahead for the Victorian Liberals

Matthew Guy is the new leader of the Liberal Party in Victoria, but he faces battles on several fronts as the party begins a stint in opposition. AAP/Julian Smith

Matthew Guy has been chosen to lead the Liberal Party in Victoria as it returns to opposition after just one term in government. Guy, who was planning minister in the Napthine government, defeated former treasurer Michael O'Brien in a party room vote.

So, with Guy elected, what do the Liberals need to do to get back on track in Victoria?

Whose fault was the election loss?

The Napthine government’s defeat last weekend did not come as a surprise. The polls had consistently indicated that the Coalition was lagging behind the ALP on a two-party-preferred basis. These polls were vindicated at the ballot box.

In the post-election wash-up, the vanquished are typically brutal in their assessment of what went wrong. The veneer of discipline that ordinarily restrains political parties is punctured, even if only temporarily while parties try to come to terms with the disappointment of their loss.

There were as many as five (maybe even more) theories that emerged to explain the Coalition’s defeat. In no particular order, these are:

  1. It was the campaign’s fault. Many have argued that Labor and the unions simply outcampaigned the Liberals, waging a formidable grassroots campaign using modern techniques borrowed from the US. The Liberals, in contrast, stuck to a more traditional campaign format.

  2. It was Geoff Shaw’s fault. There is no doubt that the Liberal-turned-independent Frankston MP played no small part in undermining one premier, Ted Baillieu, while causing significant embarrassment for his replacement, Denis Napthine.

  3. It was the East-West tunnel’s fault. Vocal anti-tunnel campaigners, not to mention the decision by the Napthine government to sign the contentious contract just weeks prior to entering caretaker mode, created consternation even among those within the electorate who were not directly impacted by it.

  4. It was Tony Abbott’s fault. The federal government’s decision to announce a petrol tax hike, the confusion over the status of the GP payment, and its budget, conspired to torpedo the state Coalition’s re-election hopes.

  5. It was the government’s fault. The state government, startled by its win in 2010, was too slow off the blocks in its first two years of office, with the result being that it failed to inspire voters and build momentum for re-election in 2014.

There is some truth to each of these accounts. Yet election losses can rarely be sheeted home to a single issue or a single event. At best, a particular issue consolidates a sentiment that may have been building within the electorate for some time.

Parliamentary discipline

One of the big challenges for any leader, particularly a new opposition leader, is to ensure that their MPs do not become restless. Bored opposition MPs are inclined to ill-discipline. They may begin to turn their attentions to internal factional matters (which leads to in-fighting) rather than remain focused on taking the fight to the government.

Another task is for Guy to shake off the last four years in government. To do this, he must select a fresh shadow ministry.

It is often tempting for an outgoing government to fill its shadow frontbench with experienced former ministers and long-serving MPs: the party leader is often under considerable pressure to do so. But Guy will struggle to relaunch the Liberals if all of the faces that flank him are the same ones that stood alongside his predecessor.

Another challenge for the Liberals is to cultivate relationships with the minor parties in the Legislative Council. Good relations with the minor parties who hold the balance of power in the upper house are useful if they can be mobilised to make life difficult for the Andrews government. This may also pay dividends in the longer term if and when the Liberals are returned to office.

Party unity

Another matter for the Liberals to deal with is the Nationals.

The Nationals indicated that they are keen to explore a new coalition partnership with the Liberals. It is less clear what the Liberals would gain by continuing with the coalition in the short term.

The Nationals lost seats, suffered a (further) decline in the party’s primary vote and appear to have lost their parliamentary status, and with it those entitlements that resource the party. The Liberals can ill-afford to cross-subsidise the Nationals at a time when their own resources are diminished. Guy will require all the largesse he can muster simply to keep his own troops in line.

The final and possibly the most difficult challenge for Guy and the Liberal Party is to resolve the debate about the kind of party it needs to become in order to win the popular vote in Victoria.

This is a contentious matter for the Victorian Liberals. There are those who believe that the party must redouble its commitment to traditional “small l” liberal values and philosophy, such as small, efficient government, choice and entrepreneurship. But others within the party recognise that the policies and narratives that this more orthodox form of liberalism gives rise to are difficult to sell in a state that is moderate in its political and social inclinations.

The looming battle between the moderates, traditionalists and conservatives is unlikely to be a pretty sight.

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