The Politics    Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A teal fight on their hands

By Rachel Withers

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference in Melbourne today. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference in Melbourne today. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

Between the reignited climate wars and the ever-present culture wars, things are not looking good for the “moderate” Liberals

Today is not a great day to be a so-called modern Liberal fending off a challenge from a progressive independent. After LNP senator Matt Canavan reignited the Coalition’s internal climate wars last night by declaring the government’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 “dead”, Wentworth MP Dave Sharma and Kooyong MP Josh Frydenberg were both grilled this morning over what that meant. “We all know Matt is like this” was the best answer they (and Scott Morrison) could give, as they insisted the commitment was “absolutely not” dead. But it’s not just fringe figures like Canavan (who doubled down today). The PM’s new “carbon tax” scare campaign is also creating headaches for Sharma, who has carefully avoided buying into it, knowing his constituents are sick of this nonsense. New polling, meanwhile, shows that Morrison’s support of anti-trans candidate Katherine Deves is seriously hurting the Wentworth incumbent, who now trails 47 to 53 per cent on the two-party preferred vote, while Frydenberg is said to be “pretty worried about his seat”. With the climate and culture wars dominating the election campaign, things are not looking good for the “moderate” Libs. They’d have to be asking themselves: does the Coalition care about their seats at all?

The climate-focused independent candidates have been quick to call out Canavan’s comments, with everyone from Wentworth’s Allegra Spender to Kooyong’s Monique Ryan to Mackellar’s Sophie Scamps jumping to point out that Canavan is someone their opponent votes with. (“A vote for Candidate X is a vote for Barnaby Joyce”, as they love to say.) Canavan is clearly an outlier here, even among the Nationals, many of whom have called for him to “pull his head in”, using more forceful language than the PM himself. (The Nats’ agreement to net zero, after all, came with perks.) But it’s the prime minister who might be the bigger problem here, as he prosecutes his latest “carbon tax” lie. (Everything you need to know about this is contained in Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy’s searing Tuesday column, to which the rest of the media is slowly beginning to catch up.) Morrison couldn’t resist piggybacking off the Canavan issue today, using questions about it to segue into his shameless scare campaign. “There’s a point that Matt makes which is important,” he said during today’s Queensland press conference, “and that’s Labor’s sneaky carbon tax”. As Labor campaign spokesperson Jason Clare said of the scare campaign this morning, “every time they open their mouth and tell the truth on this about what they really think, they’re losing votes for Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong and Dave Sharma in Wentworth,” adding that Australians have had a gutful of politicians fighting about this.

Two people who have definitely had a gutful of the climate wars are Sharma and Frydenberg, who are having to work increasingly hard to “stop the teal”. (Mackellar MP Jason Falinski and North Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman called out the recent comments from Flynn candidate Colin Boyce about the government’s “flexible” net-zero commitment, but have otherwise kept their heads down; Goldstein MP Tim Wilson, who is very worried about Brunswick values intruding on Beaumaris, is nowhere to be seen.) The treasurer, in particular, might have preferred to spend today talking about the economy – until that terrible inflation figure hit, that is – but he was repeatedly asked to answer for Canavan instead. Frydenberg nevertheless used every chance he was given to attack his “fake” opponent, even using this afternoon’s economic update to complain that he was doing interviews and Ryan wasn’t. (As Guardian Australia noted, he is the treasurer.) Sky News political editor Andrew Clennell says that having to “concentrate so hard on his home patch” is proving a distraction for Frydenberg, who would normally be focused on campaigning on the economy. He’s certainly wasted a lot of time on his ongoing tiff with Ryan about where and when they should debate, and on awkward endorsements from charity CEOs. By throwing climate wars into the mix, Scott Morrison and Matt Canavan are only making things harder for him.

It’s not just climate either. The questionable Coalition candidates just keep multiplying. Overnight, we learnt that the Liberal candidate for the seat of Macnamara, Colleen Harkin, had defended Deves’s views on trans women, while making light of gender-neutral language; today it’s Queensland Senate candidate Nicole Tobin, whose beliefs include thinking that fat people should be banned from drinking soft drink, overweight kids eat too many Tiny Teddies, and “illiterate” Cape York locals are being driven around by Lefties to vote. (She’s in an unwinnable spot, but still.)

None of this will be helpful to Frydenberg and Sharma. But neither, it seems, are the lines that these besieged Liberals are running, as they declare their opponents “fakes”. As polling guru and former Labor strategist Kos Samaras (the man behind this morning’s devastating Wentworth polling) told RN Breakfast, that’s not likely to work – Labor found that out the hard way when it tried to use the tactic against the Greens. “What we learned over 15 years was the reason we were losing support to the Greens was simply because we did not represent people’s values and didn’t appeal to them from a policy perspective,” he said. It’s little wonder, with Scott “cancel culture” Morrison at the helm, that the modern Liberals appear to be suffering the same fate.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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