Liberals pass on Battin, eye off bigger race for Victoria’s votes

This week’s unexpected challenge to Michael O’Brien’s leadership of the Victorian Liberal Party had an unlikely origin; the well-thumbed pages of a self-help book written by a business school drop-out who found inspiration in a Mumbai ashram.

It was over the summer, shortly after Brad Battin finished reading Think Like A Monk, Jay Shetty’s guide to inner purpose that became a New York Times bestseller and blockbuster podcast, that he sat down to compile a list of the reasons he first ran for state parliament 10 years earlier.

Battin’s reflection on his own political aspirations and those of a party that has spent all but four years of this century out of power, convinced him he had more to offer than making up a number on the opposition benches. As he tells The Age, he didn’t get into politics “so I can sit in a green chair”.

Brad Battin: “Every person who is in here for a period of time is at risk of thinking more about here than out in the community.”Credit:Simon Schluter

Battin’s seat is now further down the back than it was before Tuesday’s spectacularly unsuccessful spill, the traditional punishment for failed mutineers. Having failed to muster sufficient support to force a vote, let alone win one, he has become the butt of insider jokes about how unsophisticated his campaign was, right down to his choice of mid-brown shoes on the day of the attempted putsch.

Yet even among MPs and party figures who didn’t buy into Battin’s challenge there is an acknowledgement that most Liberals could learn a thing or two from him about connecting with the people who matter most: voters.

With MPs from both major parties mostly chosen from a narrow cast of political advisers, industrial lawyers, union reps and student politicians, Battin is an outlier, having worked as a local cop and run a Bakers’ Delight franchise before entering politics.

His natural habitat is not the party room or corridors of Spring Street but the suburban home ground of the Beaconsfield Football Club. That is where he plans to go on Sunday, to watch the Eagles take on Ajax in a practice match.

“I’ll be having a few beers with the boys down there,” he says. “Some of them will probably whack me on the back of the head and say ‘why’d you do that, you idiot?’ Others will say ‘well done.’

“When you go to the Berwick Football Club or Beaconsfield or Officer they couldn’t care less that you are a member of parliament. They either like you or they don’t.”

They seem to like Battin in Gembrook, the only growth corridor seat currently held by the Liberals. He won it from Labor in 2010 and since then has increased his primary vote against the red tide of Daniel Andrews’ ALP machine.

Battin’s pitch to the party room was that if they were to stand a chance in the next state election, they needed to change the conversation they were having with people in their communities.

“We can’t just talk about the economy in figures, we have to talk about what the impact is,” he says.

“We had 28 years of growth in Australia. There are people who have been voting for 10 years who have no concept what happens when a state or a country effectively looks like it is going broke. I’ve spoken to police who were in the service at the time. There were less coppers on the road. They had less ability to get nurses. Every time someone turned up to a hospital it got harder to get [treatment]. All those things are going to happen if we are not very careful.”

The Liberal Party’s decision to pass the Battin has, in a curious way, provided an opportunity for Michael O’Brien to reset his own leadership. Although there remains a hard knot of MPs who want former leader Matthew Guy to take the Liberals to the November 2022 election, Guy this week explicitly ruled himself out as a challenger. Battin says he won’t challenge again and will work to regain O’Brien’s trust. Jeff Kennett, a former premier contemplating a return to politics as party president, says that for the foreseeable future the floor belongs to O’Brien.

“Michael has got clean air,” Kennett tells The Age. “It is now entirely in his hands as to how he performs and how he leads. If he can do that well and we as a party can help him, he will lead them into the next election. If he can’t demonstrate that he can win public support, what happens in a year’s time will be entirely in his hands. I don’t see any change in the foreseeable future and I see opportunity.”

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien walks into Tuesday’s failed spill meeting flanked by supporters. Credit:Justin McManus

The Battin challenge was launched in the immediate aftermath of West Australian Premier Mark McGowan’s rout of the Liberals in last Saturday’s state election. Although the timing was coincidental, the fate of the Liberal Party in the west – a miserable outfit now reduced to two seats in a 59-seat lower house – provided an apocalyptic backdrop to Tuesday’s war games.

The politics of WA and Victoria are, in the words of one senior Liberal, as different as night and day, but the Victorian Liberals know that if they don’t get it right next November, they face another bleak political winter.

The pandemic has created a perfect storm for all opposition parties. A senior WA Liberal explained that, such was the popularity of McGowan’s leadership through the COVID-19 crisis, any criticism of him was akin to bad-mouthing the state. It didn’t matter to voters that McGowan initially ridiculed the hard border policy he eventually embraced or that, behind the walls of fortress WA, there were serious concerns about the adequacy of the public health system. “If you want to do well in WA, you tell West Australians how good they are, ” the senior Liberal said. “The only way to go for the Liberal Party was to lose and lose big.”

WA Premier Mark McGowan celebrates his crushing re-election with wife Sarah.Credit:Hamish Hastie

O’Brien believes things will be very different in Victoria by the time we go to the polls. He agrees that at the height of a public health crisis any opposition is on a hiding to nothing. He predicts that by November 2022, the health crisis will be at an end and another looming crisis more sharply in focus.

“We know the election can’t be held before November 26 next year,” O’Brien says. “By that time every Victorian who wants a vaccination will have had one. People won’t be scared of the virus anymore. What will be left is the economic devastation that has been caused by Victoria’s lockdowns. What will be left is a busted budget and a lack of confidence and optimism compared to other states.

Michael O’Brien says that by the time of the 2022 election, the pandemic health crisis will be replaced by an economic one.Credit:Justin McManus

“The Liberals will craft a very good story about how to rebuild Victoria, get our confidence and optimism back and get small business to thrive again.

“In the past, the Liberal Party has been perhaps over-reliant on economic management and law and order. We need to be a full service political party. We are not going to cede ground to Labor on education. We are not going to cede ground to Labor on health or the environment.

“I am not prepared to see my party marginalised as the people you only bring in when the budget is stuffed and crime is out of control. We have to be a party that will touch all the concerns Victorians have about the future of the state.”

O’Brien’s critics within the Liberal Party cite his inability to put a dent in the Andrews government during the pandemic as a failure of leadership. O’Brien’s calculation is that the bigger fight lies ahead, once the full toll of Victoria’s protracted lockdown becomes clear.

It will be an argument about economic management but as both O’Brien and Battin make clear, an argument that needs to be grounded in the real, everyday experiences of voters and constructive ideas to do things better. For the Victorian Liberal Party, this is no small ask.

The essential problem for the party, articulated by one Liberal MP, is that the ALP in Victoria understands state politics in a way the Liberals don’t.

“State politics is about services and things that touch people’s lives every day,” he says. “We see ourselves as good on the economy and good at being responsible. What the public wants to know is if they vote for us, are we going to get good results in schools?”

At the last state election, whatever broad appeal the Liberals might have had was buried beneath a focus on youth crime and an ideological obsession with Safe Schools, an anti-bullying program steeped in gender politics. It felt less like a policy platform for a major party than a running sheet for Sky News after dark and in Victoria it rated about as well. The Liberal approach to campaigning, compared to Labor’s slick, social media operation, is slow and antiquated. “We don’t even understand it,” an MP said. “We are waiting for the 7.45am news on ABC Radio.”

To return to power, the Liberal Party will need more than O’Brien broadening his message. Party insiders say an already small party room is carrying too many long-serving MPs who no longer attend to the essential work of community engagement. As Battin reflects: “Every person who is in here for a period of time is at risk of thinking more about here than out in the community.”

The party hierarchy is aware of this and taking steps to repair the disconnect. For the first time since it was voted out of office in 2014, the Liberal Party has advertised for and is currently training prospective candidates to stand for preselection in state and federal seats. When it advertised internally in 2019, it received only eight applicants.

In August last year, in the depths of Melbourne’s lockdown, it broadened its pitch beyond the party membership and received 120 applications. Of those, about 60 have either completed or are currently enrolled in the course.

One of them is Ben Logan, an opera singer-turned-restaurant manager who last year came to prominence as a strident critic of the lockdown policies of the Andrews government. He has joined the Liberal Party and nearly completed the course but is unsure what the next steps are.

Joining the Party: Restaurant manager and prospective Liberal candidate Ben Logan.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“Nobody has tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘listen, Neil Burgess is going to retire, we want you to run in Hastings’.”

At Liberal Party headquarters, there is enthusiasm at the influx of new members and prospective candidates, about half of them women.

There are also big changes in play at party HQ. Kennett has not held office within the Liberal Party since his government lost power 22 years ago. He is now seriously considering a political comeback of sorts as party president.

More will be known next week, when Kennett meets with current president Robert Clark. If Clark gives in-principle support to Kennett being drafted, he could bring his reformer’s zeal to fixing the party he once led.

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