‘Shattered’ Liberals wrangle over future direction in wake of federal election defeat

Defeated and returning Liberal MPs have both blamed Scott Morrison’s unpopularity for the federal election loss, but are split on whether and how to shift policy to win next time.

Liberal MPs who lost blue-ribbon seats to teal independents have cited the handling of climate, integrity and women as another source of Saturday’s defeat, suggesting the opposition should not obstruct Labor on these policy areas in the new parliament.

But conservatives including Stuart Robert and Luke Howarth think the party can win with a new leader while maintaining centre-right policies.

The Liberals lost at least 10 seats to Labor, one to the Greens, and six to independents, including a swag of seats held by former Liberal prime ministers including Kooyong, Higgins, Bennelong and Wentworth.

One defeated Liberal MP told Guardian Australia the cause of defeat in their seat “was not rocket science – it was an unpopular prime minister, climate, integrity and women”.

“What we did individually had such a limited impact,” they said. “The broad thrust of the voters’ message in the campaign was ‘we love you but a vote for you might be the difference between Morrison continuing as PM or not’.

“It was just such a strong desire to see a change of government.”

The outgoing MP called on the Liberals not to obstruct “whatever Labor does on its integrity commission” and its climate targets of 43% reduction by 2030 and net zero by 2050, which it intends to legislate.

After reports that the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, was approached to challenge Morrison but declined, the MP said “no doubt” the change in leader could have helped hold seats.

On Sunday Tim Wilson, who was defeated by independent Zoe Daniel, said the Liberals were “shattered” by a result replicated “nationally, not just in Goldstein”.

“If it just happened in Goldstein you’d say ‘well, there’s something wrong here or something wrong with me’ … but we haven’t seen that,” he said.

“As the candidate whose name is on ballot you have to take responsibility for a loss, but I also acknowledge that it wasn’t as though it was just existing in our community.

“The trend that exists here, exists in Higgins, Kooyong, Wentworth, Mackellar and North Sydney.”

On Wednesday Dave Sharma said Morrison “definitely” was a drag on his vote, and had a negative approval in seats such as Wentworth.

Sharma said voters had a “visceral” reaction to Morrison, citing reasons including “that he was too religious, they didn’t like that he carried coal into parliament one time, that they didn’t believe his sincerity on climate change … they didn’t like our handling of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations, and Grace Tame”.

“Undoubtedly, the prime minister had lost some prestige and credit during the last few years,” he told Radio National. “I think frustrations with the government are growing as they tend to accumulate after us being in power for as long as we were.”

Sharma said the teal independents “positioned themselves quite cleverly”, picking up a protest vote against the government “without being a Labor-Greens vote”.

Sharma said it was “analytically wrong” to claim the Liberals could win by shifting to the right because “you can’t tell me where the seats are that we will win … if we go to the right”.

“The only places we’ve lost are to the Greens, Labor and independents – if we want to win back 20 seats, I think that’s the only place we can find them.”

But Howarth, re-elected in his Queensland seat of Petrie, said the Liberal party should maintain a policy of net zero emissions and releasing super for first homebuyers, but wider changes were not needed.

“We didn’t lose because our policies were wrong, we lost because people wanted to change the prime minister,” he told Guardian Australia.

“Look at Labor’s corflutes; they were all about Scott Morrison. If our policies were a little different we wouldn’t have got a single extra vote.”

Robert, the former employment minister, told Sky News the Liberal party had always been “about small government, about empowered individuals, not empowered fat, bloated bureaucracies”.

“We need to stay on the sensible centre right, and connect with Australians [who] want to get ahead … It’s why Peter Dutton will lead very well – he’s in an aspirational seat, and held that aspirational seat.”

Robert said the party would review its policies “to listen, to understand what Australians’ views are, if we’ve made mistakes to own them and do better”.

The Liberal moderate senator Andrew Bragg has already proposed a detailed policy prescription to shift the debate onto economic reforms that might unite Liberals, including voluntary superannuation, a broader tax base including state income tax, and free childcare.

But Bragg’s manifesto contains many elements that conservatives would interpret as a shift leftwards, including support for higher interim climate targets, an Indigenous voice to parliament and amendments to protect LGBTQ+ students.

The Liberal MP Angie Bell, who also advocated for LGBTQ+ students during the early stages of religious discrimination bill deliberations but did not cross the floor to vote for amendments, called for the Liberal party to return to the “middle ground” of Australian politics.

“Recent political commentary following the election has suggested the party shift further to the right of the political spectrum to maintain its base,” she said. “I disagree.

“Australians want cemented policy on climate change that is robust and actionable.

“They want trust restored in their democratic systems, equality and inclusion for women and equitable solutions for all Australians to live without fear of discrimination regardless of their faith, sexual orientation, race, and gender identity.”

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