Tony Abbott’s victory is a great victory for the Liberal Party if that can be measured in terms of what the party membership wants.
What we have seen over the past week in the unfolding revolt against Malcolm Turnbull was the party’s grassroots articulating its concerns. Clearly, the pronounced shift to the Right in the Senate — where the party’s counsels are most influential in determining the ticket — is a reliable barometer of where the party membership sits. The election of Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz to the Senate leadership team was evidence of this.
But just how representative of wider opinion this is in the community is problematic. Liberal elders have always been wary of the party beast. Some decades ago, after a series of election losses in NSW, the party held one of its regular critical reviews, coming up with among other things advocacy for a greater role for party branches and branch members. A very senior Liberal at the time could not hide his bemusement. “Have you seen the sort of people who attend Liberal Party branch meetings?” he asked incredulously.
Like most political parties, but possibly not the Greens, party numbers have been in long-term freefall. The dire plight of Labor in NSW is a direct result of the shallow and narrow talent pool (for want of a better term); the Liberals Party’s capture by extremists can be similarly attributed.
Abbott is intelligent, creative and dynamic; he is also a hidebound conservative. There remain deep suspicions of him within his own ranks (as the close numbers suggest) and quite clearly these will resonate in the wider electorate. The party can kiss the doctors wives’ vote goodbye.
The bigger question, though, is just where the Liberals see their constituency. The Business Council, a natural ally, is far more attuned to Labor’s policy on an ETS than to the Liberals’ scepticism. Has the party of Menzies become merely a party of shopkeepers?