NATIONALLY, IT HAS been behind in the polls for years. Several of its MPs have defected from the party. Many others have said they will not contest the next election, due in May. The bickering about what has gone wrong and who is to blame has become deafening. So how did the ruling Liberal party win a state election in New South Wales this week?
Gladys Berejiklian, the Liberals’ leader in the state, expressed pride at having won despite being both a woman and “someone with a long surname”. But that may have worked in her favour. During the campaign, the opposition Labor party tried to stir indignation about immigration. Days before the vote, a video surfaced in which Michael Daley, the local Labor leader, complained about an influx of PhD-wielding Asians. “Our kids are moving out and foreigners are moving in and taking their jobs,” he protested. He apologised (and has since resigned), but Sydney’s huge immigrant population turned against him.
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Meanwhile Ms Berejiklian, the daughter of Armenian immigrants, eschewed “the culture wars bullshit”, as a member of her government put it, focusing instead on the strength of the local economy under the Liberals, who have been in office for eight years. New South Wales has the strongest economy in Australia: its budget is in surplus and unemployment, at 3.9%, is at a record low.
At the national level, however, the pattern is the reverse. It is the Liberals who have been trying to stoke fear of immigration. Scott Morrison, the prime minister, has fiercely resisted a law allowing sick asylum-seekers detained in camps abroad to be treated in Australia, on the grounds that hordes of boat people would set sail in the hope of making use of this loophole. He has also lowered the annual cap on immigrants, from 190,000 to 160,000. At another recent state election, in Victoria in November, the Liberals were trounced after they attempted to whip up fear about non-existent African gangs.
Ms Berejiklian distanced herself from her colleagues’ more noxious policies, and all but banned Mr Morrison from the campaign trail. She even admitted that climate change was a problem—a notion that is controversial within the national party. She has also laid out a winning electoral strategy, which her more senior colleagues seem determined to ignore.