The deputy opposition leader, Sussan Ley, has backed Peter Dutton’s decision to oppose government legislation to cut emissions by 43% by 2030, but signalled the Coalition’s climate policy could shift before the next federal election.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, the new deputy Liberal leader said it was “sensible” for the opposition not to jettison policies it took to the May election.
“If people saw us one minute in government prosecuting the policy we took to the election, and then a month later saying that’s not our policy, they would think – what do they stand for?” Ley said.
She said a fixation on emissions reduction targets was “lazy policy” and “symbolic” while contending the new Albanese government was yet to demonstrate whether or not a higher emissions reduction target would ultimately push up power prices, which have spiked because of supply disruptions globally and domestically.
But while critiquing the 43% target, Ley said the Liberal party’s position on climate and energy policy over the next three years was not fixed.
“I’m comfortable with our position, but I also accept over the next few years as we get the results of the campaign review and get an opportunity to talk to people, we have the opportunity to introduce new policy.”
The Liberal party lost six heartland seats to the “teal” climate focused independents on 21 May, and more metropolitan seats to Labor and the Greens in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
The electoral rout took out many Liberal moderates who had championed more ambitious climate policies. But at least two Liberals have indicated post-election that they could cross the floor to support Labor’s 43% target. Legislation enacting it is expected to come to parliament next month.
While some Liberal MPs favour greater policy ambition, others have procedural concerns. Some MPs are critical of the new opposition leader, Dutton, making captain’s calls about important policy decisions before a proper campaign postmortem and any party-room discussion.
Liberal and Nationals MPs will meet in Canberra next month before the opening of the 47th parliament on 26 July.
Ley – who is now the shadow minister for women – is also embarking on a round of substantial grassroots consultations because of concern many Australian women abandoned the Liberal party in May.
She said the plan was to appoint local conveners to bring women together in different parts of the country for conversations with the Liberal leadership. Ley said on the Central Coast of New South Wales for example, outgoing MP Lucy Wicks would act as a facilitator.
“What I’m hearing from a lot of younger women is they were talking but they didn’t think anyone [in the Morrison government] was listening,” Ley said.
“Many of us were listening, but the perception I’ve heard … repeatedly, is we didn’t understand what their lives were like and we didn’t have responses and initiatives that they felt answered the call from them.”
She said women “often talk about the events in parliament house [in 2021], they often talk about the image of the party, they often talk about the fact you look at us and there’s not enough women and not enough diversity”.
“I hear all those messages and I understand them,” Ley said.
The deputy Liberal leader said she remained supportive of quotas to increase women’s representation in the party, but she said there was no federal mechanism to impose affirmative action on state divisions.
“Quotas is something the party should talk about when divisions meet,” Ley said. “You can’t impose a quota at the federal level [but] we are going to have to think about something that looks like a quota.
“I’d like to see a 50% target of women in winnable seats. I’m going to work night and day to get more young women joining this party and proud of this party. That’s my task.”
Ley said over the coming term in parliament, the Liberal party needed to demonstrate “we care and we have empathy”. She said people in the community perceived that individual representatives had those qualities, “but they don’t see it at a party level”.
She said roundtable conversations with women were not intended to be a media circus, but that the input she was seeking would inform policy deliberations. “The more we [consult and listen], the more we will see the aspirations of women reflected in the policies we’ll bring forward.”
Ley said she also intended to drive cultural change in parliament house.
“One of the things I’m going to do as deputy leader is talk to every member of parliament and remind them of the events and their responsibilities,” she said. “I see my role as having a lot of responsibility for staff in offices.”
While consolidating cultural change in parliament, Ley said it was also important to focus on what is happening to women everywhere “who don’t have agency and power”.
She acknowledged that some Australian women were angry with Scott Morrison, but said the Liberal party should not fool itself that the backlash at the last election was about one person.
“I think [Morrison] acknowledged that events could have been handled better,” Ley said. “But I actually know the guy, I’ve known him for 20 years, so I can’t line up with that [really negative] view at all.
“But I have to hear it from other people and I have to accept it.”
Ley also encouraged women to keep an open mind about Dutton. She said she was encouraged that when people met the new Liberal leader, they found “he’s quite embedded in the real world”.
She said Dutton had been a loyal friend to her over a long period of time, when loyalty was not the default in professional politics.
“I’ve not seen him driven by ego. If you don’t care who takes the credit for a good idea, you actually get a whole lot more done.”
“I think he’s quite unassuming. I know that isn’t what people see, but it is what I see. He’s much more of a modern person than people realise.”