Do the Lib Dems have a PR problem?


David Leyonhjelm has never been especially shy about causing mass offence, but these have been a big couple of weeks even by his standards.

The dust had barely settled on the childcare fiasco – during which he earned the scorn of childcare workers everywhere over his comments relating to deregulation of the industry – when the Liberal Democrat senator took to Twitter to weigh in on the Bourke Street rampage, sardonically suggesting the vehicle involved in the carnage that left five people dead and more than 30 others injured was “probably one of those semi-automatic assault cars”.

As the Twittersphere cranked its outrage dial up to 11, I found myself feeling somewhat conflicted. Part of me sympathised with the good senator; indeed, it would have been hypocritical of me not to. Not only did I understand and agree with his underlying contention that it is unhinged people with the intent to cause harm and not their tool of choice that poses the real threat to society, I had also made the same point only moments earlier, quipping to a friend who informed me of the unfolding incident – though without enough detail for me to know just how serious it really was – that it showed why we needed car control.

But that sympathy was tempered by my concern that the figurehead of the party that best exemplified my own right-of-centre political values, and which currently enjoys greater exposure than ever before, might be embarking on a public relations disaster. It’s near impossible to sell the case for winding back gun control in Australia at the best of times, and it remains the most contentious of the Liberal Democrats’ policies – was it really wise to use an unfolding and potentially fatal situation as an opportunity to push that agenda?

That feeling of conflict was soon resolved by the train wreck that followed, leaving only a growing sense of frustration and disappointment. As the saga continued to unfold and the full extent of the Bourke Street horror became clear, I felt a pang of remorse that my first thoughts had been on playing politics rather than with the welfare of those caught up in the carnage. Yet Leyonhjelm refused to concede any ground over the timing of his far more public remarks or even acknowledge the victims of the tragedy, instead doubling down by insisting the outrage “only emanates from those who are too stupid to get it,” and directing the affronted to fill out a satirical Hurt Feelings Complaint Form.

No doubt Leyonhjelm’s continued defiance of the perpetually offended has gone a long way towards endearing him to his party’s base, but it’s hard to believe actively going out of the way to antagonise people in the wake of a public massacre is really the best way of selling your ideological platform. Sure, it’s unlikely the anti-gun ideologues would have conceded any ground after being presented with so perfect an opportunity to paint one of their chief adversaries as a callous bastard, but upon realising the scale of the tragedy, would it really have been too much for Leyonhjelm to at least attempt to appease the baying crowd by offering some condolences and admitting the comments were poorly timed?

Similar questions can be asked of the discussion on childcare, a policy area where the Liberal Democrats have far more potential to gain widespread support. The party’s proposal to deregulate the industry offers a legitimate means of increasing the affordability of and access to services, with the Centre for Independent Studies having championed similar initiatives; but was Leyonhjelm ever really going to get people focusing on that by allowing a phrase like “wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other” to be taken out of context so easily?

An ever-expanding range of voices within the Senate has shown Australia is not immune to the seismic shift currently taking place in world politics. With the trust between the public and the major parties having been so badly broken, there exists a real opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to play a role in shaping the nation’s political discourse and educating voters on the importance of classical liberal and libertarian principles.

Much of this responsibility lies with Leyonhjelm, who, as its sole representative in the Federal Parliament, not only serves as his party’s mouthpiece but also forms a huge part of its brand. It’s a role that will no doubt provide him with plenty of warranted opportunities to direct his opponents towards the Hurt Feelings Complaint Form. But if he truly hopes to expand his influence beyond the rusted-on party faithful, it may also require him to take a more measured approach from time to time to ensure his message doesn’t drown in a sea of outrage.