Blessings in politics can come in odd forms. When a senior figure in the Victorian Liberal Party, Tim Smith, drunkenly crashed his car through a fence just over a week ago, the party’s leader, Matthew Guy, may have initially felt that he had an unwanted scandal on his hands. In the short term he does: The incident has consumed both the media and the party.
However, in the longer term Guy may have been handed a path for the party to return to power, something that currently seems unlikely.
The controversy over Smith’s crash has been exacerbated by the kind of politician Smith is (or was, before this humbling experience). Smith represents a new breed of aggressive self-promoters who see any publicity as good publicity (although presumably not anymore). Performatively allergic to the modern world and motivated by the politics of hostility, politicians like Smith have attempted to refashion the Liberal Party in a manner that facilitates their own psychological needs, but does nothing to make the party electorally viable.
Smith saw his job to be upsetting as many people as possible on social media as a way of gaining both himself and the party attention. While Australian politics has never been short of “headkickers,” in the local parlance, Smith’s style of politicking has been very specific to the current social media age. In particular, he adopted the use of tactics designed to “fire up the base,” which have been imported from the United States, even though these have very little local application due to Australia’s compulsory voting and less fervent partisan divides.
Elections in Australia are won around the kitchen table, not on message boards. The people whose votes win elections – in the seats that matter – don’t hold jobs that allow them to be on Twitter all day. They’re neither invested nor interested in the obscurities and pettiness of the culture war that Smith is fighting. Their concerns are simply the practicalities of everyday life. These are the voters that keep Australian politics from deviating off into extremes – “the wisdom of the mildly uninterested,” as author Richard Glover put it.
This has made Smith a liability to the Liberal Party. The party has only won one election this century in Victoria. With each loss, the party has reacted in a manner that makes the public increasingly suspicious of them. The party’s irrational hatred of the current state premier, Daniel Andrews, has led them to conspiracy theories and Smith’s usage of labels like “Dictator Dan” in place of substantive critiques. These are tactics that may amuse puerile ideological warriors, but alienate the wider public.
More broadly the party has disregarded the structural factors that have weakened its standing in the state. In order to justify the party’s lack of success in Victoria, former Prime Minister John Howard disparagingly referred to the state as “the Massachusetts of Australia.” The implication of this comment – that Victoria was a progressive enclave mostly out of reach to conservative forces – may have carried some modern weight, but it overlooked the reality of the party’s history.
Federally, six of the Liberal Party’s first seven leaders — and its first three prime ministers — were from Victoria, and the “old money” families of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs were seen as the party’s bedrock. The Liberals governed Victoria continuously from 1955 to 1982. However, since Howard became federal party leader in 1995, all federal party leaders have come from New South Wales, with its distinctive “ratbag” and less patrician conservative political culture. The party’s center of gravity has shifted from Melbourne to Sydney, and culturally the Victorian branch has moved with it, leaving the Victorian public behind.
For many in the Liberal Party, “Victoria” has become an ideology, rather than a state. This motivates the party – and its media affiliates – to come across as hostile not just to the current Labor Party government, but to the state itself. It is obvious that a regional branch of a party that cannot connect with its own region simply isn’t going to convince voters that it is worth voting for.
This is the realization that Victorian Liberal leader, Matthew Guy, seems to have come to. Upon news of Smith’s drunken crash, Guy saw an opportunity and immediately sought to push him out of the party. After some initial resistance, this is something Smith has relented to, announcing he won’t recontest his seat at the next election. With Smith on the way out, the party now has a little more freedom to recalibrate itself back toward being a restrained and responsible conservative party.
Smith’s departure will be able to cool the state’s politics significantly, in an era where more agitated forms of politics are gaining traction worldwide. It is not in the public’s interest to have a major party that places its own niche grievances above the practical needs of the public. Healthy democracies need credible alternative governments. By seeking to embody this principle the party might just avoid another car crash at next year’s election.