‘We’re not the LNP’: Liberals call for Coalition rethink to save city seats

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Moderate Liberal MP Bridget Archer has called for a drastic reconsideration of the Coalition with the Nationals if the party is to win back a slew of city-based seats and save the careers of half a dozen MPs she believes are the party’s future.

The Tasmanian MP said the decades-long Coalition agreement had merits when the parties were in government, but argued it was time to redraw the relationship in opposition.

Liberal MP Bridget Archer said it was time to redraw the Coalition relationship in opposition.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Fellow moderate Liberal Andrew Bragg said the balance of policies that appealed to the cities versus regional areas needed to be rethought, while two other senior Liberal Party members, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely, suggested a formal Coalition arrangement was not necessary in opposition.

But two former Nationals leaders, Michael McCormack and Barnaby Joyce, publicly criticised the idea and argued the two parties should stick together in the Peter Dutton-led opposition.

Archer said a new Coalition arrangement could involve different types of policymaking processes that recognised the distinction between the parties. This could help avoid what she described as the messy scenario in which the Nationals’ Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is leading the Coalition’s position on the Voice even though the two parties had come to different positions on whether to support the government’s bill to set up the referendum.

‘The Nationals have not lost a seat in the past five federal elections. Those anonymous Liberals could learn from that.’

“The loser in the current arrangement is the Liberal Party.

“If we aren’t able to differentiate ourselves from the Nats in an intentional way, and create a deliberate return to the Liberal Party of Australia and its values, we are making a deliberate decision to be a party that only represents the regions,” she said in an interview, emphasising the need to win back some of the 13 city-based seats it lost at the last election.

Archer said a growing number of people referred to the Liberal Party as the LNP, which confused the party founded by Sir Robert Menzies with the merged Queensland branch of the two parties – even though they were different entities.

“[The LNP label] has become a bit of a catch-all for us and that’s not the party I signed up to. I joined the Liberal Party.”

Bragg, a NSW senator, said the Coalition had been a “foundation of Australian prosperity as it meshes city and country”.

Senator Andrew Bragg said the Coalition partnership needed to be balanced.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“I support it, but it must be balanced and must not retard the development of policy for city residents. Most Australians live in the city and this should be reflected in our policy approach,” he said.

One of the senior Liberal members who asked not to be named said at the last election the Liberal Party had not differentiated itself and as a result “the Nationals’ tail wagged the Liberal dog, and so we lost seats, and they lost no seats at all”.

“I don’t see why we need to be in coalition in opposition.”

The second senior Liberal said that heading into the last election, most voters thought the Morrison government opposed adopting a net-zero climate target because of the Nationals.

Barnaby Joyce and Michael McCormack argued the two parties should stick together.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

“Peter Dutton and Angus Taylor are trying to frame the economic debate around the cost of living and the Australian economy and [Nationals MPs] Matt Canavan and Keith Pitt are holding up lumps of coal,” they said.

But McCormack said the Coalition had long been a successful partnership and business agreement.

“We go our own way on some issues. We went early with our opposition to Voice which was important to the party, but honestly, those Liberals who are talking about a trial separation should be thinking about cost-of-living pressures and get their heads out of from where the sun doesn’t shine.

“The Nationals have not lost a seat in the past five federal elections. Those anonymous Liberals could learn from that.”

Joyce said as long as there was respect between the two parties then “you should always try and make a marriage work if possible”.

He said divisions between the two Coalition parties were driven by a “regional versus inner urban versus outer suburban” divide.

The Liberals now only hold four out of 45 inner-metropolitan seats and 14 out of 42 outer-metropolitan seats, according to the Australian Electoral Commission. Ten years ago, the Coalition held almost the same number of inner metropolitan seats as Labor and more outer metropolitan seats.

Most of the city-based seats held by the Liberals are held on tight margins and would almost certainly be lost if an election were held today, based on current levels of support in published polling.

Archer said a rethink of the Liberal Party’s metropolitan brand was urgently needed to retain seats held by James Stevens (Sturt), Keith Wolahan (Menzies), Aaron Violi (Casey) and Zoe McKenzie (Flinders), whom she nominated as future ministers or prime ministers.

“If you don’t do anything different or diverge or learn from the lessons of the last election, then those people are all at risk. It won’t be National party seats at risk, it’s more Liberals. They are the future of the party, a future government,” she said.

There is historical precedent, albeit limited, for a Liberal-Nationals split. In Victoria, the two parties were not in formal coalition until 1989, and again after the 1999 election loss, while there were splits in 1987 caused by Queensland premier Joh Bjelke Petersen’s attempt to pull the Nationals out of a formal coalition, which was partially successful. The formal merger of the Liberals and Nationals in 2008 would further complicate a split.

Adelaide-based MP James Stevens, a key member of the metropolitan members’ group – which meets regularly to discuss policies to win back city voters – does not support a rethink of the Liberal-National coalition but acknowledges a cohort of metropolitan voters can no longer be relied upon to vote Liberal.

He said the party needed to present a new value proposition to voters and said ambitious policies, which he expected would be announced before the election, would be key.

“They will breathe life, hopefully, into our connection with those people.”

Former MP Tim Wilson, who is likely to try to win back the Melbourne seat of Goldstein, said his party needed to face the reality that voters who deserted it at the last election “aren’t on strike” and the Liberals must aggressively back home ownership.

“When the Liberal Party is at its best, it is on the side of the young and aspiring, not entrenching established interests. It is what Menzies meant about reforming with a ‘lively mind and forward-looking heart’,” he said.

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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