The federal Liberals’ current problem isn’t so much senior MPs leaving as who they have staying behind.
Kelly O’Dwyer and Michael Keenan aren’t irreparable losses, but they’re young — Keenan is 46 and O’Dwyer 41, compared to the average age of their Liberal colleagues of around 50 — and, by the low standards of the last five and a half years, they’re reasonably competent.
Both mixed political staff work with private sector experience before entering politics; both have readily employable skillsets, even if their immediate focus will be on their families. Keenan’s description of himself as having been “an absent father in the lives of my children” must have hurt to admit and again confirms the toll politics inflicts, especially on West Australians.
Others, of course, may follow: Julie Bishop, Craig Laundy (another younger, competent prospect the party can ill afford to lose); the dogs are barking about Greg Hunt who, like most Victorian Liberals, looks to be facing a difficult election but with the added burden of being despised by voters for his treachery. None will likely want for careers post-politics.
Compare them to the kind of people who are sticking around in the Coalition. Eric Abetz in the senate. Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, John Alexander, Bert van Manen, Jason Wood — Liberals of varying backgrounds but none of them offering much for the future, beyond the fantasies of restoration in Tony Abbott’s head or, perhaps, destabilisation of a new generation of leaders.
Barnaby Joyce, likewise, is remaining in parliament and harbours dreams of leadership. Factional manoeuvring has at least spared the LNP the indignity of offering Ian Macdonald and Barry O’Sullivan a return to the senate, but the unfortunate George Christensen will be going around again in the house of reps, as will Ken O’Dowd.
The loss of Nigel Scullion, at least, is neither here nor there. Noteworthy as the minister who confessed to Malcolm Turnbull he hadn’t bothered watching a major Four Corners expose of his own portfolio in his own territory, Scullion departs in a manner that at least looks like generational change.
Otherwise, the generational change is of the wrong generation, compounding the loss of Julia Banks to the crossbench and the failure of Dave Sharma in Wentworth. If the rats are leaving a sinking ship, it’s one made of dead wood.
If the Liberals find themselves in opposition after the election — a prospect less certain than many make out, but more likely than most MPs would be comfortable with — the inevitable post-election review won’t merely have to examine the dearth of women in its parliamentary ranks and the incessant infighting that has characterised the last four years.
The party will need to ask why, exactly, it governed so poorly from 2013, why even ministers with experience from the Howard years proved incompetent and why the frontbench “generational change” over which Malcolm Turnbull presided when he became prime minister failed to improve the government’s performance. The dearth of talent is a political problem at elections, but it becomes even more damaging in office, and the Liberals face a future increasingly understocked with competence.