Accentuate the negative: why the Liberal Party’s fondness for ‘no’ might ultimately backfire

Tracey Nearmy/ANU

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article by Dr Marija Taflaga.

The Coalition is attempting to claim it supports a legislated Voice to Parliament because it “is important in the way it may close the gap and the way it may improve the lives of indigenous people”, but that a Voice protected by the Constitution – on which Australians will vote in a referendum later this year – is dangerous and will wreak chaos.

The opposition has struggled to articulate what precisely it thinks the risks are, and recent off-the-record backgrounding indicates the aim appears to be to damage Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s standing, in the hope this will extend to voters’ general faith in the government.

Perhaps the party leadership feels this is the only viable strategy given their political position, but it comes with risks.

This logic rests on several assumptions:

  • that the prime minister, and not the opposition, would be blamed for the yes campaign’s failure
  • that Labor will oblige the opposition by tearing itself apart
  • that politics is zero-sum and every vote lost from Labor is one for the Coalition.

The first two factors are unknowable. But it is worth noting that Albanese’s biggest downside risk is in being seen to have shied away from his heartfelt commitment. That is because it goes to his authenticity and trustworthiness. Losing after standing up for a point of principle is a different calculus. It is also an empirical fact that more prime ministers have lost referendums than won them.

It is possible Labor will turn on itself in the wake of a referendum defeat and a looming economic crisis. Both the ill-discipline and lack of nerve of the Whitlam and Rudd-Gillard governments made it possible for the extreme negative politics of the Snedden-Fraser and Abbott oppositions to succeed.

However, the government has so far shown itself to be composed largely of tough-minded pragmatists in economically ill-favoured times.

The idea that Australian electoral seats end up with either Labor or Coalition was an article of faith in Australian politics. It was underwritten by very high levels of party loyalty and our compulsory, preferential voting system.

But the conditions that buttressed this orthodoxy have been in decline for decades, and have been shaping election outcomes for some time. There are now multiple viable political alternatives, and while it is not possible to predict whether voters will continue to abandon the major parties, offering voters more of what they just rejected is unlikely to be a winning strategy.

The strategy could backfire and the Coalition may reinforce a perception that its approach to politics remains cynical and tactical, rather than focused on finding solutions to longstanding problems and building a better future.

The electoral rout in 2022 was the Liberal party’s worst ever. While some of that is attributable to the unpopularity of former prime minister Scott Morrison, much of it was also the result of long-term trends, including voter dealignment and a growing generational gap in ideological outlook.

Why have voters abandoned the major parties, and young people and women in particular turned their backs on the Coalition? The reasons are complex, but can be summarised as a growing sense that politicians don’t listen, don’t act in the national interest, and pursue partisan aims over the wider public good. The result is that governments appear unwilling to solve a growing number of pressing problems – and voters have rationally sought alternatives.

Virtually every royal commission we’ve had has come about because governments failed (often wilfully) to listen to those affected or those in a position to give good advice.

The Liberals’ approach to the Voice is illustrative of the party’s ongoing commitment to negative campaigning with a minimal positive agenda.

In the wake of the election, the party said it heard what women had to say. Others argued the party needed to do more for young people, particularly in relation to housing and global heating.

But the response so far has been largely backward-looking – reheating old policies, invoking old platitudes and, in the case of the Voice, reviving arguments and language from the 1990s.

First-term oppositions typically aren’t imaginative, but they are usually reflective on some level. After all, they have just lost an election.

The Liberals have made much of their claims to being a “broad church”. In reality, this refrain has been a useful tool to quickly end discussions about how much internal debate the party should allow. The party has always consisted of two irreconcilable political traditions – after all, Liberals and Conservatives were the government and opposition of the 19th century.

The Liberal party, like other hybrid Conservative-Liberal parties, has managed this dilemma by having one faction dominate the other. What was different in the past was the degree to which the party was prepared to tolerate differences of opinion in open forums.

Debate within the Liberal Party has been in decline for decades. Genuine debate has been eroded by message discipline and the centralisation of power with party leaders.

These are worldwide trends facing all parties. But the Liberal Party now also faces the dilemma of having lost a significant number of its moderate flank.

There are simply far fewer countervailing voices in today’s Liberal party room.

The 2022 election saw many of the party’s most able political leaders, capable of articulating a centre-right vision of the good life in the 21st century, exit parliament. Many of the remaining moderates are in the shadow cabinet, where discipline means they cannot publicly articulate the range of views that would truly denote the “broad church” that has historically so successfully appealed to Australian voters.

The Liberal Party is not going anywhere. It draws on considerable institutional buffers, including public funding and electoral and administrative laws that protect established parties from some competition. Significantly, it retains the support of more than one-third of the electorate.

But with public movement away from both major parties now an established trend, and the party’s seemingly entrenched backward-looking focus, it remains an open question as to how long will remain in the wilderness – and whether it will choose to remain, permanently, a smaller and narrower party.