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Liberals hit reset as federal campaign boss quits


By any measure, the past 12 months have been a disaster for the Liberals.

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On Wednesday night Tony Nutt, a Liberal campaign veteran with more than three decades of experience under his belt, resigned.

Nutt took over as federal director of the party from Brian Loughnane after Malcolm Turnbull seized the leadership from Tony Abbott in September 2015.

At that time, the Liberals had so little money Nutt worked for nothing.

As Turnbull revealed this year, the corporate sector had turned off the tap and the prime minister personally chipped in $1.75 million to keep the party afloat.

Many of the party’s supporters were in residual shock, or disgruntled, the parliamentary wing decided to go down the same path as Labor by knifing a sitting prime minister.

But an undaunted Turnbull pressed ahead, trying to forge a political and economic agenda while keeping conservative pro-Abbott forces within the tent.

The 2016 double-dissolution election, coupled with new Senate voting rules, delivered a near-fatal blow to the first-term Coalition government.

Turnbull held on to power by one seat and the Senate cross bench – already described as “feral” – took on a wilder complexion, with the likes of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation team, and independent and former broadcaster Derryn Hinch.

Nutt said in his election post-mortem that Labor’s so-called ‘Mediscare’ campaign was pivotal to the bad result.

It’s clear the campaign – which involved night-time robo-calls to pensioners and text messages that appeared to come from Medicare itself – was effective in many marginal seats where health was a key issue.

But, as political academic John Warhurst says, the argument ignored Turnbull’s dramatic fall in approval after a very brief honeymoon as disappointed voters wanting a fresh approach to government switched off.

“It is like a football coach who after a loss or an unexpectedly narrow win blames his team’s performance on the dirty tactics of the opposition. In doing so, you inevitably brush over the weaknesses or limitations of your own performance,” Warhurst wrote in an analysis for Eureka Street.

Nutt and Turnbull also pointed to the support Labor received from unions – which combined provided at least $16 million towards the anti-government election campaign – and GetUp!, which spent about $10 million.

“They have a massive financial advantage over our side,” Turnbull said.

Since the federal election, the Liberals have lost government in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and failed to take power in the ACT.

Senate numbers have tightened, with South Australia’s Cory Bernardi leaving the party to set up his Australian Conservatives.

Abbott has found a second wind, using the freedom of a backbencher to snipe at the government’s direction and work with other MPs to keep issues such as watering down race-hate laws on the agenda.

Turnbull insists his government, which has trailed Labor in the polls since September, is delivering on its promises.

The two double-dissolution triggers – the Australian Building and Construction Commission restoration bill and the Registered Organisation Commission legislation – have passed parliament.

Tax cuts for small businesses only – much to the disappointment of traditional Liberal-supporting corporate chiefs – and middle-income earners are in place.

At least $25 billion of “budget improvement measures” have been made since the election, including some that will pay for childcare reform.

The boats remained stopped and national security laws have been bolstered.

However, as the Liberal federal executive receives a comprehensive report on the 2016 election campaign and looks for Nutt’s successor, the party has many challenges ahead.

Holding off a Labor win will require better harnessing of the resources of the party’s corporate supporters, improving the use of social media and other modern campaign tools, greater discipline in the parliamentary wing and – above all – convincing voters the government’s agenda is acting economically responsible and fair.

That could be a big ask when the next election could be called as early as August next year.


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