Election 2022: What happens to the Liberal Party if Josh Frydenberg loses his seat?

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Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Source: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

In case the images of the Treasurer campaigning on the line at an early voting booth weren’t enough of a giveaway, Josh Frydenberg is in trouble.

A YouGov poll published in The Australian has him on track to lose the Liberal heirloom of Kooyong (represented by Robert Menzies and Andrew Peacock no less) to independent challenger Monique Ryan.

Ryan has momentum, a well-resourced volunteer army, and she put in a strong performance at a candidates debate last week. Our sources tell us there are more Ryan corflutes than Frydenberg ones on the Treasurer’s own street.

At a press conference today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison evaded questions about his future treasurer: “That’s not something I’m speculating on because I know Josh will be returned.”

So we’re doing the speculating for him.

Frydenberg technically leads Victoria’s “ambition faction” that’s loosely aligned with Morrison’s centre-right grouping. But ideologically he’s seen as a more moderate type than many on the Liberal frontbench. His loss would trigger a dramatic shift within the party.

First, let’s war-game a few scenarios. If Morrison hangs on and Frydenberg loses, his coveted spot as treasurer becomes vacant. Defence Minister Peter Dutton would firm up as Morrison’s heir apparent for the leadership, creating potential for succession-plan tension between the two as the term grows stale.

Dutton as treasurer seems an odd fit considering he enjoys the bluntness of Defence, but given his influence within the party the portfolio would be his for the taking.

Other potential contenders come from Frydenberg’s own grouping. Michael Sukkar, a leading Victorian powerbroker and current Assistant Treasurer and Housing Minister would be in the mix. So would Trade Minister Dan Tehan.

Alex Hawke, a close ally of the PM and leader of the centre-right faction, would undoubtedly rise under a reelected Morrison government, although his personal brand has taken a hit in NSW after widespread infighting over preselections.

A slightly more likely scenario would be a Frydenberg loss and a Labor win. In that instance, it’s hard to imagine Kooyong being the only seat swept away in the teal wave. If the teals pick up more than one seat, it would represent a dramatic shift in the party’s base, with the most affluent areas of the country no longer assured Liberal territory.

Of course, there’s every chance the teal wave could be a one-hit wonder, a protest vote against the Morrison government’s foot-dragging on climate change and integrity issues.

But with Frydenberg gone, and Morrison an election-loser, it would all but pave the way for Dutton to assume leadership of the Coalition.

Dutton is more conservative and less obviously pragmatic than Morrison. He’s also a highly divisive figure in the cities. Any remaining urban moderates would get nervous about their futures.

Dutton would be likely to continue with a turbocharged version of Morrison’s “suburban strategy”, tying the party’s electoral future to outer mortgage belts, regional centres and mining communities.

With the party’s focus shifting, it would be increasingly difficult for moderates to exert their influence over the party at a federal level. Already underrepresented among its most vocal, senior figures, there is no clear moderate candidate for the leadership, or Treasury.

The most senior figures include two senators — Finance Minister Simon Birmingham and Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne — who’d be unable step into the leadership. That leaves Paul Fletcher, perhaps not an obvious leadership contender, but a potential candidate for Treasury in any scenario.

Naturally this is all deeply speculative. Alliances shift, and election results have a way of bringing about seismic change within political parties. However, it’s clear Frydenberg’s fight isn’t just about Kooyong, but the very future of the Liberal Party.

This article was first published by Crikey.

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