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Richardson: The Liberals' one problem

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As the numbers fell in Fisher, a few Liberals might well have imagined the brassy tones of Shirley Bassey belting out “It’s all just a little case of History Repeating”.

That is, before they became catatonic and slouched into a fetal position in a dark corner somewhere.

But there is a distinct difference between the March state election and the microcosm thereof that the Fisher by-election is fast becoming: this time, the Liberal Party could see it coming. Even if almost nobody else did.

Their polling was clearly showing them under serious threat from the surging Woody (ahem!), hence their panicked eleventh hour Woody-bashing, which thrust their campaign tactics into the public spotlight on polling day eve. Nonetheless, the tactic might just have achieved its aim, pushing the Independent into third place, out of harm’s way. But that just left the Libs with another little problem they perhaps hadn’t banked on (not for the first time): the Labor Party.

Ironically, it may have been a backlash against the Libs’ negative tactics that prompted so many Independent voters to preference Labor second. By election night, Nat Cook looked to have the seat wrapped up. Party secretary Reggie Martin was momentarily thrown when the Electoral Commission declared Labor’s lead only 269 votes at close of counting; ALP insiders had them 638 in front. Martin was on the verge of angrily demanding his scrutineer in the contentious booth check his figures, until he was told the relevant scrutineer was former state secretary Michael Brown. “Forget it,” he figured. The Electoral Commission makes mistakes; Browny doesn’t.

And so it proved; Labor’s lead was ominous, seemingly insurmountable, with one seasoned campaigner confidently telling me: “We’ve won.”
But, as they said in Spinal Tap, there’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.

On Tuesday, when the Liberals surged back into contention after a massive pre-poll vote count gave them a lead of 17, that same seasoned campaigner sent me a text message that began: “F***. I feel like a goose now.”

Hardly Robinson Crusoe there.

Labor’s triumphalism quickly turned to a sheepish silence. While no-one had been game to call Fisher officially won, everyone in the ALP had been acting as though it was, and it would have been a major embarrassment had the Liberals snatched it.

Indeed, while it could be argued the ALP had little to lose from this contest, majority Government is not mere symbolism.

For the Liberals, too, their Momentary Lazarus act was significant: it cauterized the potential bloodletting and, briefly, returned the spring to their collective step.

Steven Marshall is not what’s wrong with the Liberal Party. Indeed, he’s actually what’s right with it at the moment…

If they’d lost narrowly on election night it would have still been seen as an unmitigated disaster. If they lose narrowly tomorrow or thereafter, they will claim some kudos from having rallied in the counting of early votes, a point which underlines the popular theory among local Liberal ranks that it was David Johnston’s canoe that sunk Fisher.

Indeed, it’s hard to see how the local Libs could have had a more unhelpful Federal Government; even a Labor Federal Government couldn’t have managed to cruel their chances as efficiently.

As soon as the poll was done, Johnston announced a raft of measures to re-energise enthusiasm around local shipbuilding and Abbott announced a compromised GP co-payment scheme. I’d imagine Steven Marshall et al were scratching their heads: “Um…guys? You couldn’t have done this last week when it might have even slightly helped us out?!”

The dogged incompetence of the Coalition alone will help silence the inevitable speculation around Marshall’s leadership, which is understandable but misguided. Steven Marshall is not what’s wrong with the Liberal Party. Indeed, he’s actually what’s right with it at the moment; a competent, diligent relative cleanskin who actually wants to work to improve the state, as opposed to just winning elections.

What’s wrong with the Liberal Party (and there’s clearly something greatly amiss) is not one individual but a culture.

Marshall claims to have healed factional rifts, and I think he genuinely believes he has. But there was not one member of the right at Heidi Harris’s election night function on Saturday; not one. Just as there won’t be any David Pisonis or John Gardners or Stephen Wades or Duncan McFetridges or Vickie Chapmans at Sam Duluk’s campaign office sharing beer and cold pizza when his tilt for neighbouring Davenport is done and dusted.

There is no sense of anyone in the party learning the overarching lesson of the March election, that you actually have to stand for something if you want to convince people to elect you. The party celebrated Heidi Harris’s preselection because it supposedly showed how “democratic” the organisation is. It didn’t; all that it showed was that more moderates showed up to vote than conservatives on the day.

The candidate herself was given no opportunity to publicly articulate why she wanted to represent Fisher and why she was equipped to do so. For me, the most poignant symbol of how the Liberal Party operates came this time last week, a day before polling. A letter had been distributed by a constituent named Raymond Feller, writing “as a neighbour” to warn people off voting for Daniel Woodyatt. He didn’t mention the Liberal Party. Even though they paid to distribute his letter.

Harris and Marshall stood side by side, the candidate and the party leader, and neither was able to answer a single question about Raymond Feller and his letter. They didn’t, indeed, even seem to know whether or not it was paid for, endorsed, printed, distributed, or written by their own party. These were, they insisted, questions for the state director, and at another time.

I spent the entire night in the Liberal Party’s Fisher campaign headquarters, and I seemed to know more about how the count was progressing than anyone else there.

We have heard about the Faceless Men of Labor, but when a candidate and a party leader are the last to know pertinent details of a by-election campaign less than a day from polling, something is clearly not right.

But the real Liberal malaise, as I realised last Saturday, is that they just don’t really understand how to win elections. They have a vague notion, of course; they know they have to spend a certain amount of money, poll voters about their issues, knock on doors, preference strategically. But even then, they can’t quite manage to nail it.

Late in the night, after the close of counting, a Liberal scrutineer rather huffily approached me, asking which channel I worked for. She then launched into a condescending rant: “Has anyone actually explained to you people that the electoral commission is doing this all wrong; they’re counting the two-party vote as Liberal and Labor, whereas it’s actually Liberal and Daniel Woodyatt, the Independent, and once they correct that, all these numbers will be completely different.”

I nodded along, before explaining that critique was arguable three hours earlier when Woodyatt looked likely to run second, but that since then Labor had won the two biggest booths outright and Woodyatt had fallen about six per cent behind the ALP on primaries, and in any case if he came second the Liberals wouldn’t have had a prayer. Her face fell. “Oh. I hadn’t heard that. I was just concentrating on my booth.”

On my way out, I asked a senior MP for his take on things. We won’t know for certain for days, he explained, but things will be much clearer when we see the results from booths like Reynella East. Labor sources had already given me the Reynella East results about two hours earlier; the ALP had run ahead of the Liberals on primaries, with Woodyatt a distant third. When I told him this his face fell, as he did the maths in his head.

And I was quietly dumbfounded. I spent the entire night in the Liberal Party’s Fisher campaign headquarters, and I seemed to know more about how the count was progressing than anyone else there.

Guys that do this sort of thing for a vocation (as opposed to just a living) tell me there’s still every chance Woodyatt could do what Geoff Brock did in Frome in 2009, and surge at the distribution of preferences to take the seat with ALP preferences. Brock was 513 behind Labor on the last day of counting, but made up the gap on the preferences of minor candidates who had 1735 votes between them. Woody is currently around 700 behind Labor on primaries, but there are 2552 votes for minor candidates, so he needs a much smaller ratio of their preferences than Brock ended up snaring.

Even if the Libs do pinch Fisher from here, a swing of nearly 8 per cent to a fourth term Government less than a year after a state election at which that same Government got only 47 per cent of the popular vote (and still won) doesn’t leave much room for silver linings.

The Liberals don’t lose because they elected the wrong leader, or the wrong candidate, or even because of Tony Abbott and David Johnston (though they didn’t help). They lose because they don’t know how to win.

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.

He will join InDaily’s reporting staff full-time from January.

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