Frydenberg, vanquished, struggles to comprehend the depth of disaster

There was a sense of unreality about Josh Frydenberg’s appearance in a Hawthorn park in inner Melbourne, where, 12 hours after virtually all hope was lost, he was still feigning to cling to the fantasy that somehow a mailbox full of postal votes could save him.

“With 16,000 postal votes still to count in Kooyong, it is mathematically possible that I could retain Kooyong, but it is obviously very, very difficult,” he said.

Josh Frydenberg says farewell, whether he understands that or not.Credit:AAP

Quite. With more than two-thirds of votes counted, Frydenberg trailed teal independent Monique Ryan by almost 5000 votes and 8.8 percentage points on a two-party preferred basis.

Frydenberg, of course, was still in shock, his life’s expectations having been removed and scattered like dust in the wind.

The greater unreality was the depth of the political disaster that had consigned him and his party to the wilderness and the extent to which he did not appear willing to confront the reasons.

He was still speaking of Scott Morrison’s “outstanding leadership, extraordinary leadership in difficult times”.

Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Frydenberg claims, showed outstanding leadership.Credit:AP

Call it loyalty to a fault, but it sounded preposterous, for Morrison’s leadership had brought Frydenberg and the wider Liberal Party to ruin.

Anyone with a pulse knew Morrison’s arrogant behaviour, apparent tolerance for undisguised rorting and failure to enunciate a coherent set of values led to most Australians judging he was no leader worthy of the name.

Accompanying that judgment was political damnation of many of those MPs who walked alongside this man they knew, or should have known, was a dud prime minister.

Frydenberg is no ordinary member of parliament thrown out by voters during an ordinary election, however. Here was the treasurer of the nation, the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, the member – at least for a day or two more – of Kooyong, the most venerable Liberal electorate in Australia, the seat of the founder of the party, Robert Menzies.

Successful Kooyong challenger Monique Ryan campaigned on two things Frydenberg refused to address: climate action and an integrity commission. Credit:Joe Armao

Here was the man who until Saturday night was seen as the future leader of the Liberal Party, a prime minister down the track who might put a brake on the party’s lurch, permitted by Morrison, to the worst instincts of the hard, evangelical right.

All of that promise was gone now.

Frydenberg, standing stunned in the park on Sunday morning, professed himself to be a “Menzian” Liberal, which he defined as the belief in “a contest of ideas”, rather than a clash of warring personalities.

Where, then, was that contest of ideas during the Morrisonian period?

The central idea at every turn boiled down to attacks on opposing personalities, excuses for inaction when action was demanded and a commitment to political survival for its own sake.

Even JobKeeper, clearly a big idea that helped many businesses and their employees to survive during the depths of the pandemic, was designed to exclude universities and the arts – those institutions of the mind and the heart not valued by the Morrison government.

And while this was a government ruthless in its pursuit of welfare recipients who might find themselves overpaid, there was no mechanism to pursue billions of dollars that disappeared into businesses that turned out not to have needed such munificence.

And what of a reasoned policy towards the challenge of climate change, the absence of which, in the end, brought down Frydenberg’s career with the rise of the Climate 200-backed teals, whose number one priority was that very subject?

Frydenberg, ignoring that Australia is consigned internationally to the bottom of the heap by its approach, complained that “Australia has not been well-served by the culture wars on climate change”. He added: “Whether you believe in it or don’t believe in it, climate change is not a religion.”

All very well, if we are to ignore that the government he served was deep into the culture war, with his own prime minister swaggering around parliament with a lump of coal, eventually bribing the deniers of the Nationals with $20 billion to agree to net zero emissions by 2050, only to have prominent Nationals subsequently declare the whole idea dead.

And a federal integrity commission to investigate government corruption, the second of the victorious teals’ demands? After three years of no progress, not a word from the Coalition.

Women? There should be more in the party, Frydenberg said, but gave no hint he believed quotas might make sure they got there.

Frydenberg declared that at 50, he still had “fire in my belly” and “gas in the tank”. What that might mean for his future, he offered nothing, beyond a pledge to spend more time with his family.

Frydenberg’s own decision to kick Victoria and its lockdown laws during the height of the pandemic might be considered the start of his political downfall, but he wasn’t having that.

In a radio interview, he said he didn’t regret it and believed it was not “a determining factor” in the election result.

Finally, he declared that “clearly, the people have spoken” and “the Coalition needs to hear what has been said and act on it”.

Too late, he might have added. But he didn’t.

Cut through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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