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Julia Banks: What next for the Liberal Party and will Frydenberg ride to the rescue?

Dutton’s Liberal Party is like a 'big, unwieldy out-of-date steamroller.

Dutton’s Liberal Party is like a 'big, unwieldy out-of-date steamroller. Photo: AAP/TND

If Scott Morrison was the self-described ‘bulldozer’, Peter Dutton’s Liberal Party is like an unwieldy, out-of-date steamroller.

The Liberals veered away from the centre in 2016, and after the leadership coup in 2018 took a sharp and excruciating turn to the right, as far from the centre as their old steamroller could possibly go.

The consequences were that only the right wing could get on and stay on board, as well as a few submissive moderate hangers-on who weren’t unseated. They remained on board conditional upon their willingness to curry favour with their right-wing leaders – and also act in concert with the Murdoch press.

Dutton’s leadership has nurtured the inclusion of right-wing values in the party, resistance to climate change action and unrelenting oppositionist stances to everything – not least of which was this week’s flourish, with the objection to the Voice.

Then and now

After Labor’s historic win in the Aston by-election last Saturday, images of our Prime Minister sharing a coffee and celebratory hugs with the newly elected Mary Doyle and her local community began circulating. This reminded me of the day after the 2016 election, when then-PM Malcolm Turnbull came to visit and celebrate my winning the seat of Chisholm.

Different parties and different historic wins. But what Albanese and Doyle have in common with Turnbull and me is we were fighting the same enemy – Morrison, Peter Dutton and the right wing of the Liberal Party.

The postmortem analysis of Aston should be recognised as literally that, postmortem. After death.

In fact, after the by-election, former Liberal strategist Tony Barry described the Liberal Party as “where hope goes to die”.

It was a slow death, but it really began in earnest in early 2018 when Dutton further cemented his hard right-wing credentials.

In Victoria at that time, branches were being stacked with right-wing members and rumours were circulating that my preselection, and others such as Kelly O’Dwyer, would be challenged in early 2018.

Around that time, Turnbull visited the local community in the heart of Chisholm at Box Hill Central shopping centre. The response was akin to a rock star vibe.

A few weeks after that visit, a local Chisholm resident called my office wondering why I wasn’t in Box Hill Central – only a few minutes’ drive from my electoral office – because he said “two ministers – Peter Dutton and Michael Sukkar” were doing a shopping centre walk-through.

It was a kind of ‘pre-coup’ activity to test Dutton’s popularity in Victoria, so it was kept secret from me. When I called Dutton to challenge him about it, his response was: “Oh, sorry Julia – Michael [Sukkar] told me I was in Deakin.”

So Dutton said he didn’t know where he was, but his undercover visit obviously didn’t work anyway. Just a few months later, he co-led the coup with Morrison and three months after that the Victorian election result was touted as a ‘Danslide’. The Liberals’ own report said that 30 per cent of people changed their vote because of the ousting of Turnbull in August.

After Aston

Aston by-election

Dutton “tried to rewrite history” after Roshena Campbell‘s by-election defeat in Aston. Photo: AAP

All this week we’ve heard Liberals squirming and sprouting their ad nauseam message points along the lines that ‘we’ve got a lot of work to do’.

Liberal member for La Trobe, Jason Woods, added to the analysis and showed the limitations of his thought process by suggesting that Liberal HQ should have put posters of Dutton across Aston, and marketed Dutton’s attributes.

Wood, always a firm supporter of Dutton, was a designated ‘helper’ to Dutton’s co-ringleader status in the coup against Turnbull.

When I confronted him during that week of madness about why he was helping Dutton blow up a perfectly good Turnbull government, his level of strategic thinking was again on show.

“Oh because … Dutts (yes, he called him Dutts) and I, we’re both cops so we support each other.” That was it. Just that.

Dutton led the charge with the post-Aston loss ‘comms’ and, in the process, tried to rewrite history by saying Victoria has gone backwards for decades for the Liberal Party.

It took Turnbull to correct that and point out to Dutton that Victoria is a small ‘l’ liberal progressive state and that, in fact, the last time it went forward was in 2016 when I became the member for Chisholm, under Turnbull’s prime ministership. Before that, the seat had been in Labor hands for over 18 years.

The key message we’ve heard repeatedly this week from the Liberals is variations of their ‘values haven’t changed’ or ‘their values are enduring’ alongside nostalgic commentary about Robert Menzies, as if they’re talking about a dying footy team that won a premiership last century

Yet it’s as plain as day that the Liberal Party’s values have changed.

While leadership spill rumours were quashed this week, it’s clear the party’s problem goes beyond and deeper than positional leadership

It’s about structure, culture and values – with deep incompetence, an obsessive focus on internal issues and fringe issues in equal measure, and a good dose of toxicity thrown in.

Frydenberg to the rescue?

Josh Frydenberg, touted as the hopeful national saviour of the Liberal Party of old, and other former Liberal hopeful moderates may well stage a comeback.

But evidence of their pandering to the right has started already – with Frydenberg’s effusive endorsement of Roshena Campbell, the failed candidate for Aston, who shares Dutton’s right-wing views.

Even if Frydenberg, or any of the so-called moderates, makes a successful comeback, it’s hard to envisage how they can even remotely turn the steamroller around. It’s already started plummeting down a cliff.

Testament to this is the result of the past two Victorian elections, the 2022 federal election, the NSW election and now the Aston by-election.

Labor is increasingly positioning itself as the natural centrist major party across Australia, with the exception of Tasmania.

In contrast to the steamroller, Labor is like a modern EV driving around the country, painting it red and picking up seats such as Higgins and Aston, while working constructively with the metro teal independents.

Julia Banks is an author, businesswoman, keynote speaker and former federal Liberal-turned-independent MP

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