January 13, 2024 - 8:00am

It was a startling comment for an ambitious opposition frontbencher to make, and one that should have been unimaginable given that less than 18 months ago Australia’s centre-right Liberal Party was in electoral ruin, its moderate wing reduced to dust. Haemorrhaging 18 seats, the Party was all but wiped out in inner-city areas.

“This next election will be competitive,” Party senator James Paterson stated, as 2023 drew to an end. “We certainly haven’t got it in the bag […] but we know what we need to do to get there.”

In May 2022, the Liberals’ crown jewel electorates were gobbled up by a new wave of mostly female teal candidates, who championed action on climate change and posed as the antidote to then Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s pugnacious style. One Australian Liberal described it to me as “an extinction-level event”.

So why didn’t the Liberals fall into a spiral of self-destruction like the one currently gripping their British equivalent, the Tory Party? The reasons are twofold and serve as vital lessons for the philosophically aimless Conservatives, who seem intent on creating ever more sub-factions as their government draws its dying breaths.

The leadership of Peter Dutton, who took over following the 2022 election defeat, has been critical to the Australian Liberals’ recovery. Hailing from the Right of the party, his latter years in Cabinet were largely spent openly baiting “Lefties” on national security and migration, so politicians from the country’s Labor Party rubbed their hands at the prospect of the Liberals’ lurch to the Right. Yet this didn’t happen.

While some members of Australia’s centre-Right party have shown interest in following US Republicans and British Tories by pursuing issues such as the trans debate, Dutton has tried to steer clear of contentious culture-war topics. “He wants us to be mainstream and avoid distractions,” one frontbencher, who is close to the leader, told UnHerd.

Another senior Liberal told me that Dutton has put a premium on internal unity and has focused on non-partisan, “centrist” issues, citing the cost of living, energy costs and government competence. These same issues should be the Tories’ bread-and-butter should they find themselves opposing Prime Minister Keir Starmer by the end of the year.

Yet Right-wing Tories need not fear that electoral viability requires a lurch to the Left, either. This line of thinking was en vogue immediately after the Coalition’s defeat, but Dutton resisted calls from what remained of the moderate wing to tack towards Labor’s policies. 

This paid off in two ways. On climate, the Liberal leader was faced with an early test when Labor legislated the country’s 2050 net zero target. A vote against this motion would have risked ignoring the will of an electorate broadly in favour of stronger climate mitigation; a vote in support would have blown up the remains of the party’s backing in Queensland, one of Australia’s most conservative-voting states. Dutton read the party room. The legislation passed, as it was always going to do, without Coalition support. 

Then there was his opposition to the Indigenous Voice campaign. Though public polling was in favour of saying Yes to the motion, Coalition members were strongly against providing additional constitutional rights for Indigenous Australians. In the end, Dutton’s view was overwhelmingly backed by 61% of the population when it was put to a referendum, the result shattering Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s confidence. 

First elected to the House of Representatives in 2001, Dutton not only has a working memory of working in a successful and stable Coalition government but, critically, an understanding of how the “broad church” of the party’s various factional wings can and should operate in government. In November polling company Newspoll had the Coalition, comprising the Liberals and the National Party of Australia, neck and neck with Labor for the first time since the election.

The Liberals are unlikely to reach government, yet it is astonishing that they are within striking distance of power, given the scale of the Coalition loss in 2022. Wiser heads in Britain’s Tory Party should take note: recovery from a near-existential loss only becomes existential in how one responds to it. Choosing unity over division reveals that the pathway back to power does not have to cost an entire generation of talent and experience.

Latika M. Bourke is a journalist and author based in London with more than twenty years of experience covering Australian politics, British politics and international affairs. She writes at www.latikambourke.com.