The inner-Melbourne seat of Higgins is not normally considered an exciting one by pundits. Since its inception in 1949, it has been a very safe Liberal seat, and seventy years on, in 2019, it remains relatively unlikely that it will change hands. Centred on old-money suburbs like Toorak, South Yarra and Malvern, we could be forgiven for thinking this is a straightforwardly conservative seat that will stay blue for aeons to come.
But Labor recently installed a new, star candidate for Higgins — high-profile barrister, Fiona McLeod — clearly believing that there is a mood for change in this blue-ribbon seat. Higgins, then, is not so straight forward. Indeed, scratch the surface and there are big issues – issues that cut right across the country.
For instance, if we look not at the up-coming general election, but at the Liberal preselection contest for Higgins, we gain some real insights into the battle for the soul of Liberal Party of Australia.
Preselections for Higgins have at times been truly bitter affairs. As a “leadership seat” for the Liberals — it was the seat of Harold Holt, John Gorton and Peter Costello — the prevailing candidate tends to tell us where the Liberal Party sees its future, or at least, about one of several competing visions. The preselection this year of paediatric doctor Katie Allen, thus, speaks to a Liberal Party that hopes to be a moderate ‘liberal’ party in which professional women can feel at home.
But, of course, that is by no means a clear trajectory for the party right now. Rather, it is struggling with what has come to be known as the Liberal Party’s “women problem”.
The Liberals will lose something like half the women from their federal party room this election. Some, like former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and like current Member for Higgins, Kelly O’Dwyer, are retiring from politics. Others, like Julia Banks and Ann Sudmalis, have quit the party, citing a culture of bullying and harassment. Others lost their preselections, or are in seats that are so close that they’re not expected to survive even a small swing to Labor — and the polls suggest a big one.
Women are still contesting Liberal seats, just not as Liberal candidates. In the Wentworth by-election, the electorate returned Kerryn Phelps, a moderate, ‘liberal’ independent, over the official Liberal candidate, Dave Sharma. It is the same story in Mayo, in South Australia: in 2016 and 2018 that seat returned Rebecca Sharkie, a member of Nick Xenophon’s centrist, liberal-lite party.
Independent, liberal women are also challenging conservative Liberal blokes in a whole host of electorates, most notably Flinders — Julia Banks is returning to challenge Greg Hunt — and Warringah, where Zali Steggall is taking on Tony Abbott. All of this suggests moderate, professional women just don’t think the Liberal Party is a place where their contribution will be valued. Indeed, just before she quit politics, Kelly O’Dwyer was complaining to her colleagues the party had gained a reputation for being “anti-women”.
All of this played into the preselection for Higgins. As party members were preparing to vote, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, urged them to replace Kelly O’Dwyer with a woman — undoubtedly with this “women problem” in mind. The result of the final vote saw 116 party members ignore that advice and vote for a man. Katie Allen prevailed, but not overwhelmingly. So the Katie Allen future of the party — as a place where professional women can lead — is not something that yet exists, and it looks like it will encounter serious resistance if that is the longer-term vision. The divide in the party is deep.
There is also a growing divide in the Liberal Party’s electoral base — one that has been opening up slowly but surely over the last two decades and is now hitting a point where it could matter electorally.
Since its foundation in the 1940s, the Liberal Party’s success depended on its ability to hold together a diverse coalition of voters, from upper-class conservatives to moderate middle-class liberals. It achieved that through ideological pragmatism; it wasn’t too pure about its beliefs or its policies, always seeking a balance.
That ideological fudging basically isn’t cutting it at the moment. Voters are increasingly turning to independents and minor parties that don’t need to compromise between conservatism and liberalism. And there have been some major issues the Liberal Party just has not been able to find compromises on. Climate change is probably the biggest one, but the treatment of asylum seekers has been another reason moderate liberals have been abandoning the party and electing people like Kerryn Phelps, whose first move in parliament was the medivac bill.
Once again, we can see this in microcosm if we look closely at Higgins. The seat is dominated by old-school, moneyed conservatives: that much is clear enough from the fact that Malvern was one of the hearing locations for the touring parliamentary inquiry into Labor’s franking credits policy – essentially a forum for wealthy self-funded retirees to complain about being taxed. Indeed, just a few years earlier, that same constituency mounted a challenge to Kelly O’Dwyer’s Liberal endorsement (while she was on maternity leave) due to her role in reforming superannuation to be less generous to the super-wealthy. This, then, is a constituency highly resistant to moderate, liberal reforms.
But over in the western part of the seat, it is the Greens, not the Liberals, who are increasingly dominant. The Greens won the state seat of Prahran, covering the same turf, in a close three-cornered contest in 2014, and retained it in 2018. Indeed, there was a 10 per cent swing against the Liberal candidate that election — none other than Katie Allen. There, the electorate is younger and more progressive, and they are clearly abandoning the Liberal party in numbers.
That trend is also present at the federal level. Last election Greens candidate for Higgins, Jason Ball, came second with a quarter of the primary vote. That was well behind the Liberal vote, but since the 2016 election the ‘liberal’ credentials of the Liberal Party have suffered further with the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull, the abandonment of its emissions policy, desperate resistance to the medivac bill, and the emergence of the “women problem”. Higgins may well be a happy hunting-ground for Greens hoping to pick up disaffected Liberal voters wanting something more moderate and forward thinking. And this time around, Labor is also in the game, with a star candidate and probably some money coming in behind her. It could become a genuine three-cornered contest this time around.
The upshot is this: Higgins is not a political island. It is connected up to the rest of the country. The issues that grip that nation, that shape our politics, crop up in Higgins, sometimes writ small, embodied by one meeting of residents or one hearing on franking credits; sometimes writ large, when we consider the leadership potential of the Member for Higgins. Higgins tells us important things about the state of politics – and especially the Liberal Party – if only we look at it carefully.