Sydney Morning Hearld Article: Liberals need to consolidate strengths, tend to weak spots
With the election over and the subsequent horse-trading now finished, it is time for the post mortem. Was it a good result for the Liberal Party and its supporters?
At the most basic level, clearly not. We set out to win government - and we did not get there. It is natural and appropriate to feel bitterly disappointed.
But it is no contradiction to say the Liberal Party ran a very successful campaign. Under Tony Abbott's disciplined and energetic leadership, we took a first-term government to the very brink. Labor lost 16 seats.
When I entered Parliament at a byelection in December - the same week that Tony Abbott became leader - predicting such an outcome at the next general election would have seemed impossibly optimistic.
Kevin Rudd was a popular first-term prime minister, just about to jet off to Copenhagen to show the rest of the world how to solve climate change. It has been an extraordinary turnaround in the eight months since.
The Liberal Party now has a clear priority, to build on this result so we can win government as soon as possible. The way forward will probably not involve a rapid return to the polls. Such predictions seem to overlook the clear interest of the independents - and the Labor-Green minority government - in holding on for as long as possible.
How do we maximise our chances?
First, by not making the mistake that Labor made after the 1998 election - of assuming the next one was virtually in the bag. Instead, we should heed a critical lesson from this election: federal politics is highly dynamic. The relative strengths of the main parties can shift very quickly.
Second, we must build on our strengths and the factors which differentiate Liberal from Labor. For example, our processes to choose candidates are robustly and openly competitive and democratic. The result has been a rich diversity of talent entering the Parliament at this election on our side of politics.
Our party room now includes the youngest person to sit in Federal Parliament, Wyatt Roy; the first indigenous Australian in the lower house, Ken Wyatt; and a sporting great and accomplished businessman, John Alexander, who recaptured Bennelong.
Conversely, Labor's narrow gene pool in its candidate selection - with most of its parliamentarians being ex-union officials, political advisers or class-action lawyers - is a serious problem. Unusually, this was an election in which Labor's internal processes - how it chooses candidates and leaders, and how it dumps them - became mainstream political issues. Australians did not like what they saw.
And the Liberal Party must stick to its core principles of competition in ideas and in talent. This is our most powerful differentiator from Labor and it is the best way we can serve Australia.
Like any organisation aspiring to high performance, the Liberal Party must carefully study what went wrong as well as what went right. There were several seats in NSW where we got very good swings but not quite enough. At the next election we need to convert these into wins.
But the most important thing the Liberal Party can do now is to function as a vigorous and effective opposition. With the reforms to the way Parliament works, there will be even greater scope to do that work.
There will be no shortage of issues to pursue. Will we see a continuation of the wild spending of the Rudd-Gillard government - with budget deficits in the last three years of $27 billion, $57 billion and $41 billion? Labor promised to get back to surplus by 2012-13 - but will that promise be met under a Labor-Green minority government?
Just as Coalition scrutiny brought mismanagement of pink batts and school halls to light, we should apply forensic scrutiny to the $43 billion national broadband network. The business case was already fragile: Labor's implementation study predicted a paltry 6 per cent to 7 per cent return, and even that requires highly optimistic assumptions about the number of people who take up services on the new network.
It is even harder with Gillard's new commitment to build first in rural and remote areas - where building a network costs much more and the number of customers is much lower.
Twenty years ago Labor governments in Victoria and South Australia found that banking was a lot harder business than it looked. There is every chance that federal Labor will learn the same painful lesson about telecommunications.
Another priority issue is the falling rate of productivity growth in Australia. As Fred Hilmer, the architect of the competition reforms of the '90s, has recently argued, we hear a lot about ''enablers'' of productivity improvement today - like spending more on infrastructure. For Labor, economic reform is code for spending money. We hear a lot less about incentives - which are the real drivers of productivity.
Another focus for an effective opposition will be highlighting the policies of the Greens. They present themselves as a cuddly, friendly party that wants to save the environment. They try not to talk so much about their hard-left economic views. A responsible and effective opposition will ensure all aspects of the Greens' policies are subject to appropriate scrutiny.
So this election was a good result for the Liberal Party - but not good enough. As a result, Australia faces three more years of incontinent public spending, rising taxes, and growing state intervention in citizens' daily lives.
Paul Fletcher is the Liberal member for Bradfield.