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Journey to the centre of a line

Mike Steketee, National affairs editor | March 15, 2008

BRENDAN Nelson bounced around federal parliament this week with all the nervous energy that comes with ambition and Malcolm Turnbull sitting on his tail.

He saw an opening in the Government's flat-footed response on supposedly one-off bonuses for carers and seniors, and exploited it to the hilt. The Liberals became the party of compassion, defending the selfless who sacrificed income and leisure to look after the sick and disabled in their homes.

It is a line that needs some work and the Government had fun with it, at least once it got around to guaranteeing the bonuses. "Being lectured by this mob on vulnerable people is like being lectured by Paris Hilton on public modesty," Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen said.

But the Liberals have to start somewhere. Having reversed their positions on Work Choices, the Kyoto Protocol, the apology to the Stolen Generations and nuclear power in Australia, they come to the task with a clean canvas. There is no shortage of suggestions about how to fill it.

NSW senator Marise Payne, a member of the minority moderates mostly left out in the cold during the Howard years, told the Sydney Institute last week that the future of the party lay in "a more representative expression of the breadth of Liberal philosophy". Many long-time Liberal voters had told her they would not support the party at the federal election because "we lacked compassion and heart".

Examples cited included the treatment of refugees, particularly the detention of children, and the attitude to people perceived to be outside the mainstream, such as gays.

"Why would you vote for us if you believed that we didn't like the lives of your grand-daughter and her partner or your son or your nephew?" Payne asked. "What happened, they asked, to freedom of the individual, freedom of choice and basic respect for human dignity?"

Good questions. There is evidence that issues such as the Iraq war and refugees prompted small-l liberals among Coalition voters to switch to Labor in the past two elections. In 2004, a swag of inner metropolitan seats defied the overall shift to the Howard government to swing towards Labor: Liberal seats in Sydney such as John Howard's Bennelong, Berowra, North Sydney and Bradfield, together with Adelaide and Labor seats such as Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler.

Add the further swings to Labor in this election and this adds up to movements against the Liberals of 9.2 per cent in Adelaide, 8.9 per cent in Bennelong, 8.4 per cent in Berowra, 7.9 per cent in North Sydney and 6.8 per cent in Bradfield. These are big shifts in anyone's political language. On the other hand, they resulted in the Liberals losing only two of these seats: Adelaide in 2004 and Bennelong in 2007.

At the other end of the Liberal spectrum from Payne, former minister Kevin Andrews has come up with a quite different analysis of the election result. The seats Labor won, he told the same Sydney Institute forum, were mostly in the outer suburbs and regional areas. They had been the voters who swung to the Howard government in 1996 - small-business people, working-class tradespeople, parents working part time and retirees - and to whom Kevin Rudd had sold himself as a fiscal conservative. Elections, Andrews argued, were won in the centre. "The Coalition should not abandon the centre in favour of the latest trendy alternative or middle-class Left fancy," he added. "That will condemn us to Opposition for many years to come."

Andrews has a point. The biggest swings to Labor last year, between 9.5 per cent and more than 14 per cent, were in Queensland and they occurred in a ring of regional seats outside Brisbane - Forde, Longman, Blair and Petrie - as well as in Dawson, the electorate around Mackay, and Leichhardt, which includes Cairns. Other formerly safe or fairly safe Liberal seats that Labor won with swings of 6 per cent to 8 per cent were Robertson on the NSW central coast, Page on the NSW north coast and Corangamite, west of Geelong.

These voters came to be known as the Howard battlers but they are mostly the same people who in the past were referred to as the mortgage belt or Robert Menzies' forgotten people. Howard may have made bigger inroads for a while among lower-income voters, particularly when he was chasing Pauline Hanson's followers, but he well and truly lost them over Work Choices and a feeling that he had stopped listening to their concerns, as he lost many middle-income suburban and regional voters.

Underlying Howard's electoral strategy was that he could do without some small-l liberal supporters if this was the price of keeping his regional and outer suburban vote intact. But this is not a luxury the Liberals can afford in Opposition.

Their task is to put together a winning coalition, wherever they can find it. That means wooing back the younger voters they lost over climate change, the lower-income voters who deserted over industrial relations and the small-l liberal voters who defected over refugees and the Iraq war.

With federal elections mostly close-fought contests, winning back seats such as Bennelong and Adelaide will be just as important as getting back on top in the regions and the outer suburbs.

Nor is there only one true way to put together such a winning combination. Malcolm Fraser did not lose the 1983 election because he promoted Aboriginal land rights and multiculturalism or allowed large numbers of Vietnamese boatpeople to stay as refugees. If these were issues on which he was prepared to lead public opinion, voters were willing to follow for three consecutive elections. He lost at his fourth attempt because of a recession and the arrival of Bob Hawke as a credible alternative.

Andrews says it would do enduring damage to the Liberal cause if the party walked away "from what we have stood for over the years". To uphold the principle of freedom, he espouses, among other things, "the encouragement of self-reliance rather than reliance on the welfare state". This certainly is not what Howard did: the welfare state grew like topsy during his 12 years in office. Andrews could do worse than encourage the Liberals down his own preferred path, even though this week it was making it harder for the Government to cut welfare for the rich and non-needy, let alone those more deserving. That's politics.

The point is that the centre of politics does not have to be where Howard was standing. Any successful prime minister can claim, to misquote Charles de Gaulle, that "the centre is where I am".

Conservatives also should be careful what they wish for when they promote a merger between the National and Liberal parties as a panacea for their ailments. It may seem logical enough to combine resources and maximise firepower. But some of the Nationals' low-income supporters would move to Labor rather than vote for anything that looked like the Liberal Party, some would defect to independents and others could be lured into a new country or Hansonite party. Some Liberals, including many moderates, would agree only to a complete capitulation by the Nationals; that is, if they joined the Liberal Party. This is hardly a recipe for creating the strong, united force that conservatives crave. And that is before considering the horrendous logistics involved in the state branches of each party, as well as the federal organisations, reaching agreement on the same terms and conditions.

The Opposition has better things to do than to be sidetracked by such a diversion. Like working out what it stands for.

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