Former ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja’s attempted comeback to politics via a NSW Senate vacancy highlights yet again the Liberal Party’s identity conundrum – is it a “broad church” or a conservative party.
The party’s founder, Robert Menzies, who was Prime Minister for 16 years obviously got the correct identity. He deliberately called it the “Liberal” party and not the “Conservative” party because he wanted to make room for pragmatic centrists and small “l” liberals so he could occupy the centre right, where the majority lay most of the time.
Seselja, on the other hand, is a hard-right conservative, especially on social issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, assisted dying and in broader policy areas like education and health.
Obviously, there is room for him in a “broad church” Liberal Party. But the Liberal Party is no longer a broad church. Ever since John Howard became Prime Minister nearly everyone in the party left of the nave was isolated, ignored, and ultimately driven out.
Indeed, Seselja was at the tail-end of that very process when in February 2013 he defeated moderate Gary Humphries in a preselection for the ACT Senate seat. Humphries, a former ACT Chief Minister, had held the seat for the previous 10 years.
At the time it was almost an axiom of Australian politics that each major party would win one territory senator each at each election. And, so Seselja went on to win the seat, despite his right-wing politics which did not sit well with the ACT’s reputation as being left-leaning.
At the time, however, Seselja wrongly thought that he would be elected because of his right-wing politics, not despite them.
”I do think we need to secure that Senate seat and make it a less vulnerable seat than it has been in recent years,” he said. ”We can do better. The Greens really shouldn’t be a threat to this Senate seat.”
Well, well, it was precisely because of Seselja’s right-wing politics that the second ACT Senate seat fell to a Green-Teal-type independent candidate – David Pocock – in 2022.
It would be fair to speculate that a more moderate Liberal would not have lost the seat. It would be equally fair to speculate that if Seselja stood again in the ACT at the next election, he would not win. Pocock has performed well in the Senate and Seselja’s politics remain unpopular here.
The real question is why, on earth, would the Liberal Party select Seselja to replace the moderate Marise Payne in NSW? The Liberal Party needs as many women and moderates as it can get.
Instead, it is turning to one of a batch of male losers: Seselja; Dave Sharma (who lost his seat in 2022 to a Teal); and Andrew Constance who failed to win pre-selection for a seat in 2022.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has given at least a nod of support to Seselja. He also has the support of Nationals Senator Matt Canavan and Liberal MP Michael Sukkar, both conservatives.
It is a recipe for more electoral failure. Dutton’s conservatism and referendum campaign will hardly endear him to the people who deserted the Liberal Party for the Teals in 2022 in seats the Liberals need to win. Seselja in the Senate would only give a loud hailer to policies that much of the electorate finds unpalatable.
They would be shooting themselves in the foot.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 7 October 2023.