Winds of blame sweep though the Liberal ranks

Election 2002
The Liberals are accusing themselves and even their supporters, but as Karen Kissane reports, few are publicly pointing the finger at their new leader.

It was a sombre Robert Doyle who faced the media yesterday. Gone was the cocky, quipping politician high on the excitement of a campaign. He had led his people over a political cliff – or had he?

Mr Doyle was non-committal when offered chances to defend his performance. He deflected them with promises of an inquiry into the party’s electoral disaster. Asked whether his negative anti-union push in the final week of the campaign had hurt the party, he said: “The foolish thing would be to try to jump in and have quick and ready answers.” But some Liberals say Mr Doyle is responsible not for carnage but for rescue from what could have been a worse catastrophe.

Party polling the weekend before the election indicated the party faced losing so many seats that it could have lost party status in the parliament, a Liberal source said yesterday.

The polling suggested the party could finish up with fewer than seven lower house MPs after the loss of even blue-ribbon seats such as Doncaster, Bulleen and Sandringham. “We were going to be wiped out,” said the source, who did not wish to be named.

“So that (anti-union) strategy was adopted in the last week to save the Liberal Party from becoming an irrelevant rump. We appealed to our own people, to our heartland, because it was our own bloody people who were soft. They were deserting us. And it worked, to a certain degree.”

Had Mr Doyle controlled the campaign or was he told what to do? Mr Doyle told a press conference at Parliament House yesterday: “The campaign is a team effort with input from a number of sources.”

Upper house Liberal MP Cameron Boardman said Mr Doyle had been constrained by a party machine that refused to allow him off the leash: “A very small group of people . . . were saying what he was going to say, and it wasn’t Robert Doyle. It was completely manufactured.

“If Robert had been given scope to perform like himself then people would have seen a completely different side of him. But his lines were predictable and he ended up sounding like a politician.”

Mr Doyle said the electorate “felt we had not heard their message of 1999”. Other MPs also blamed the loss on the party’s failure to face the truth about the Kennett defeat. The parliamentary party was out of touch, said one MP: “There’s a lot of complacency, a lot of laziness. People don’t really get out of their offices to try and work out what’s happening on the ground.” MPs and candidates talked to each other and their constituents: “It was just purely Liberals talking to Liberals.”

Consequently, candidates had been too smug and had behaved more like MPs than people seeking votes: “The party machine, in fairness, tried to put the fear of God into the candidates as a whole team. But the message was pretty late and not adhered to.”

Labor, in contrast, worked hard to build relationships with all kinds of groups and organisations: “We lost creativity and we lost the edge, and the Labor Party filled the gap,” he said.

Peter Katsambanis, who lost his upper house seat of Monash, agreed that the seeds of the disaster were sown by the party’s response to the 1999 election loss: “Far too many people sat around trying to convince themselves that we hadn’t really lost. They tried to blame the people of Victoria, tried to suggest that somehow the people had got it wrong and hadn’t wanted to vote the government out.”

Mr Katsambanis also criticised the organisational wing of the party for redecorating its headquarters rather than saving money for the campaign: “There was no war chest to run an effective campaign, and I believe the Labor Party outspent us by three
to one.”

Had the Kennett factor been important in Mr Doyle’s downfall? Mr Doyle said: “I don’t know about that. I think one thing that’s very important for the Liberals is that we stick together.”

But Bernie Finn, unsuccessful Liberal candidate for Macedon, said Mr Doyle had been continually upstaged by Jeff Kennett.

“It’s a ghost that has to go away. What the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party needs is an exorcism.

“Even in the last week of campaign, he pushed Doyle off the front pages when he resigned from 3AK. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a collection to send him on a one-way ticket to Chechnya.”
Was Mr Doyle’s leadership now under threat? Mr Doyle said: “I will certainly stand again as leader and then it’s a matter for my party room.”

Mr Finn said: “When they meet in a telephone booth on Monday – there’s only a bloody dog and a cat left, after all – I would be staggered if they were to dump Robert. Who else is there?”

First published in The Age.