THE MANAGER OF Opposition Business, Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher, published in The Australian and on his website a commentary entitled “Liberal Party can and must try to regain traditional, wealthy heartland seats”.

I’m in two minds whether I should respond to his commentary. Since I worked on Nicolette Boele’s campaign – which nearly unseated Mr Fletcher – I don’t want to alert him to how fundamentally wrong he is, lest I divert him from the path he is on. However, his egregious nonsense should be called out – sunlight is the best disinfectant, so I favour the latter.

Fletcher outlined five things the Liberal Party needed to do to win government. It is far too early to begin serious analysis on how the Liberal Party lost, notwithstanding the number of pundits offering their sometimes misinformed analysis and proofs of confirmation bias, but Fletcher has a personal need to do so because his new role means that he is a senior tactician for his party. He needs to raise a flag and announce he’s here and on the case.

He offers this as his first response: 

“We need an honest and realistic self-assessment about the way we campaign and connect with the community.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

It’s obvious, but ok. 

“Liberals believe in the market and in competition.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

There is no evidence that is the case. Parties, especially the Liberals, support their paymasters, and paymasters demand minimal competition. How else the “gas led recovery”, the blind faith in Carbon Capture and Storage, and grants to private media entities? To name a few.

How else the unbridled enabling of the National Party’s agrarian socialism? Simply repeating, over and over, ritual phrases about the sanctity of competition does not mean you believe them. It just means you want people to think you believe them. But the former government was in power for many years, and we have learnt the hard lesson that it is by their deeds you know them, not their words.

“…we were out-competed and out-innovated in many of our heartland metropolitan seats.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

You were? I don’t speak for any other campaign, but Nicolette Boele’s campaign ran for under $350,000, a truckload of money but far less than the campaigns that won. Is that the reason we lost? Possibly. But even on that amount we had the biggest swing on first preferences in the nation against a Liberal – who happens to be Fletcher, although he didn’t mention that. 

“…we were up against extremely sophisticated campaigns, many directed by operatives with long campaign experience in the union movement and other green left groups like GetUp.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

I sincerely hope that Fletcher and the Loughnane/Hume review believe this. Sun Tzu (probably) says you need your enemy to be awed by you. 

The truth is that Nicolette Boele ran an inspiring volunteer campaign. Our “sophistication” lay in listening to people’s concerns and taking them seriously. There was no Dominic Cummings or other eminence grise, no algorithms or Meta/Facebook/Instagram/Google Artificial Intelligence.  Yet apparently one of the reasons for the Liberal Party’s poor performance was that the independents did a “much better job of using digital communications to target voters within an individual electorate” 

Launch of Campaign Office – #BradfieldVote: Photo Rob Mills

Would that that were true! All of us were human first-timers. The challenges that bedevil all new and inexperienced organisations grappling with learning to work together and get on top of new technology were always there, staved off only by our shared conviction that Fletcher, now manager of opposition business and his government had to go for our country’s sake. That conviction has not waned. 

And as for “union movement” and GetUp, either he thinks there is a heretofore invisible cell of union movement and GetUp activists in Bradfield (“Flee Comrade! We have been discovered!”) or he thinks that the nearly 47 percent of people who voted against the Liberal Party are dupes of outside interests. It seems he thinks the former, which speaks volumes about how well he knows his electorate. If he thinks the latter, he shows how much respect he has for the people of Bradfield.

“Thanks to funding from Simon Holmes a Court and other wealthy Australians, the independent campaigns spent at a level never before seen in local electorate politics in Australia.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

This is a pernicious assertion. Fletcher is now Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy. He knows (I assume) that aggregation of donations does not mean that donations originate from the aggregator. Our campaign in Bradfield was funded by individual human donations – we did not take corporate donations from for-profits – and the vast majority were under $200 a donation.  

Two other things. This portrayal of the wealthy – from a person who purports to represent one of the wealthiest electorates in Australia – as somehow undemocratic is a populist reactionary rhetorical device, common to the pages of The Australian and the witterings of Sky at night blathering on about shadowy “elites”. To the extent it has any credibility, it is only when deployed by a party representative himself prepared to be open about the sources of his own funds. 

I’m not holding my breath.

A second, perhaps minor but nevertheless galling, point. How does he know spending was at a level never before seen in Australia? Due to the laws passed by both the Liberal and Labor parties we don’t know, and won’t for some time, how much was spent, which is the way they like it. 

As Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy he could be an advocate for real time reporting of donations, but given his stance on defending the previous government’s indefensible integrity commission I’m not holding my breath on that one either. The second lesson that Fletcher the says the Liberal Party must learn: 

“The Liberal Party must work hard to understand the message sent to us by people who previously voted Liberal.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

Well, yes. 

Dogs for Democracy – #BradfieldVotes: Photo Rob Mills

But remember Fletcher publishes this in The Australian, the readers of which – I’m going out on a limb here – are likely to be sympathetic to the assertion that the reason independents won was because Liberal voters turned away. More harshly, some in the commentariat assert that voters “betrayed” the Liberal Party. There is certainly a whiff of that in Fletcher’s statement, the assumption that it was the voters’ actions against a party, misunderstood, but essentially unchanging, that caused this national upset.

If it were me, I would not start with the assumption that it was only previous Liberal voters who wanted change. I might start with an analysis that was not predicated on the inviolate truth of tribal identities, and instead ask myself why it is that men (!) whose sole job it was to represent their electorates utterly missed seeing their failure coming. 

And not by small margins, but by seismic paroxysms of rejection. That is a level of blindness and self-absorption it is hard to grasp, and to begin with the assumption it was the voters who changed seems, to me, the wrong place to start.

The third lesson Fletcher has learnt is that the Liberal Party needs to improve its selection of candidates. Again, that’s kind of obvious. If you are putting up candidates who are (metaphorically) being left on the battlefield, then there is something wrong with the way you are selecting your cannon fodder. 

One might start with the question of what are candidates for?

Do they represent their community, or do they represent their party?

Fun fact: There is no job description of a member of parliament. If you go looking in the parliamentary library, you will see that MPs have several obligations – to their electorate, to their party (if they have one), to their nation – but there’s no single document that describes the position. That might be a place to start.

The fourth lesson that the MOB has learnt is that the Liberal Party must

“…make the case for stable government that can only be delivered when a major party has a majority government.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

One should always be suspicious of arguments from self-interest – motivated reasoning is a powerful thing – but in this case one can argue against the assertion by simply pointing out that objectively it is not true. The academics and researchers that the Liberal Party loathes (more damned elitists!) have written much on this (see for example Minority Governments in Australia 1989-2009: Accords, Charters and Agreements and The Independent Effect). 

But even if that were not the case, it is also true that the Australian voting public has been moving away from granting either side of the two-party system majoritarian mandates for decades. The 2022 election is the continuation of a trend, not an aberration, and if one were truly interested in democratic representation, rather than, say, party loyalism, one would recognise that the people are voting for institutional change. Sure, it’s inchoate, but the direction of travel is clear. 

A modernising party would work with that; a reactionary party will work against it and actively thwart it. This is potentially dangerous ideological territory, as we can see from the GOP’s untethering from reality, principles and ethics in the USA, and there is no reason to think the Australian Liberal Party is any more immune from the siren calls of reactionary populism and faux nationalism than the GOP or the Tories.

The #BradfieldVotes Team : Photo Rob Mills

Before addressing Fletcher’s fifth lesson, can I just point out that asserting that stable government can only be delivered by a major party is a disingenuous take on history from a member of a party that has not been a major party – if a major party is one that can govern in its own right with a majority – for decades. 

The secret Coalition agreement is, no more and no less, an agreement between two minority parties to form a nominal majority. Pretending that it isn’t might be one of the reasons the previous government lost.

Finally, Fletcher exhorts the disheartened faithful to,

“…remember our record of strong economic management.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

This shows the same touching faith in the power of ritual invocation that the hymns to the sanctity of competition demonstrate. It has never been true that either side of politics can truthfully claim to be “strong economic managers”, although that of course stops neither from doing so. 

And it Is not clear what “strong economic management” means. Does it mean the fetishization of surpluses that the Liberal Party indulged in until suddenly it didn’t? The asinine “technology not taxes” slogan? Or does it mean the full-throated participation in and advocacy for international free trade, until you suddenly find you have no manufacturing base left and you’ve under-resourced your research base so much you cannot produce life-saving medication? 

Or what about acknowledging that we live on a planet where global trade and geopolitics are so intricately intertwined that it would be more honest for any given national government to concede that sometimes they are not actually in the driver’s seat? 

And what, after all, avails us of a strong economy when our lifestyle is unsustainable and we bequeath to our children a lower standard of living than our own, with inbuilt environmental uncertainty and danger?

God save us from “strong economic management”, at least as practiced so far.

In a recent email to the electorate, sent after the election, the returned Member for Bradfield, wrote:

“Our democracy is a precious thing – and it only works when we all participate vigorously. I want to say to those who did not give me their first preference vote – a significantly larger number in this election than in previous elections – that I have heard your very clear message. Many of you told me – at pre poll locations, or on polling day, or as I campaigned over the last few weeks around the electorate – why you would be making this decision. I know that many of you had previously voted Liberal. I have heard the message that the Liberal Party needs to do more on the complex changes needed to achieve net zero emissions and combat climate change; on supporting equality of opportunity and outcome for women, in the workforce and in other aspects of life; and on an effective mechanism to combat the risk of corruption at Commonwealth Government level.”

Bradfield MP Paul Fletcher

It is interesting that the issues he has heard from us do not appear in his opinion piece, except for a reference to the importance of listening to women. Maybe he has listened, but he doesn’t want the wider Liberal Party to know that there might be other, non-gendered, issues that are also important? 

But the current Member for Bradfield is right to say that democracy only works when we all participate vigorously. That’s a lesson we learned in our electorate. 

It won’t be forgotten.


No Fibs coverage of #BradfieldVotes

Nicolette’s Boele’s launch speech ‘Change is not only possible, but necessary’ – Nicolette Boele launches in #BradfieldVotes

Twitter’s launch report Nicolette Boele’s call to action, be brave #BradfieldVotes and vote like your future depends on it

Rob Mills’ pre-election campaign report A miracle is possible in #BradfieldVotes: the high hopes of Nicolette Boele’s campaign manager

No Fibs podcast interview with Nicolette Boele  it’s hard but its doable Nicolette Boele on her quest to turn Upper North Shore #BradfieldVotes independent

We did not win, but did you see what #BradfieldVotes achieved? Rob Mills’ story