The Liberals’ disastrous result in the recent Longman by-election obviously played a major role in bringing an effective end to Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership. But the lesson drawn from the outcome by nearly all political pundits, and particularly those on the political right seems to me to be totally unfounded.
The central claim is that the Liberals lost votes to One Nation, which more accurately reflected the views of their conservative basis. The corollary is that to win seats in Queensland the LNP needs to become more overtly racist, most obviously by elevating Peter Dutton to the leadership.
I won’t comment on the morality of this, but simply on the electoral mathematics. Let’s look at the electoral results for Longman, conveniently collected by Wikipedia. First, compare the by-election to the 2016 result. Obviously, the LNP vote collapsed. But what’s more striking is that the combined LNP-ONP coalition vote also fell by around 3 percentage points, while the Labor-Green coalition gained 5 per cent. The combined vote for each side was about 44 per cent. So, even if ONP preferences had flowed more strongly to the LNP, the outcome would have been very close.
The other part of the argument seems to be that Longman is representative of Australia, or at least Queensland as a whole. In reality, it’s classic One Nation territory*. In its first outing in the 1998 Queensland election, One Nation won the state seat of Caboolture (central to Longman), one of only a handful of wins in the South-east. In the Federal election the same year, One Nation got 18 per cent of the vote, more than this time around. That compares to a Queensland average of 14 per cent and a national average of 8 per cent. Interestingly, the One Nation vote in Dickson (now held by Dutton) was just 8 per cent.
The real problem is not that LNP voters as a group have suddenly become racists (or, at best, anti-anti-racists), but that the party’s members, activists and intellectual base have done so, but have had to conceal or blur the fact until relatively recently**. That’s why they are eager to adopt an interpretation of the Longman outcome that justifies them in coming out.
* To be absolutely clear, I don’t mean that most, or even a large minority of residents of Longman are racists or Hanson fans. Rather, whereas the average proportion of such people in Australia is around 10 per cent, in Longman its closer to 20. Whenever a Hanson-type candidate looks plausible, they can expect to get a fair few of those votes.
** I tried to think of someone who could reasonably be described as a small-l liberal in the way this term was once used. My best candidates were Peter van Onselen and Chris Berg, neither of whom really fit the bill in the way that, say, Ian McPhee did. Any others?