Behind her desk, new Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee keeps a sign which reads: “Defeat? I do not recognise the meaning of the word!”
The quote is from Margaret Thatcher; Ms Lee admires the late UK prime minister as a female pioneer – and, like the Iron Lady, Ms Lee is not for turning.
The Korean-born lawyer and academic is determined that the Canberra Liberals will win the next election, and end what will have been a quarter-century in opposition by 2024. She intends to be the Liberals’ first chief minister since her mentor, Kate Carnell.
“I’m under no delusion about having to work hard to ensure that Canberrans see us a genuine alternate government,” Ms Lee said. “And in the next four years, I’ll be working very hard with my team to put forward a vision for the future of Canberra that they will hopefully elect.”
In person, Ms Lee comes across as intelligent, friendly, and ready for a challenge – qualities she will need to change her party’s ailing fortunes.
October’s results were not what the Liberals hoped, or expected: their sixth consecutive defeat, the loss of two seats, and a swing of 2.9% against them. In her electorate of Kurrajong, Ms Lee is now the only Liberals member; former colleague Candice Burch was unlucky.
The party is now licking its wounds; Ms Lee’s immediate priority, she said, is to be there for her team in the aftermath of the loss, build up their morale, and make sure they perform at their peak.
“Everyone put a lot of effort into winning the election, and the disappointment is palpable. There’s a lot of hurt and disappointment I need to manage.”
The first step, she said, is to learn from the mistakes the party may have made, and identify changes they need to make. A formal review is happening at the party level.
Ms Lee would not be drawn on those changes; she was reluctant to “foreshadow” what would come out of the review. But she has spent the last two months talking to Canberrans “from all diverse ranges and experiences” to hear where they believe the Liberals can improve, and why they feel the party was not electable.
“There’s no silver bullet; if there was, surely any political party that has suffered consecutive losses would have picked up on that and dealt with it,” Ms Lee said.
“It was always going to be an uphill battle for us with the pandemic. We saw across Australia and beyond that incumbent governments were returned quite strongly, but at the same time there’s clearly a message that Canberrans wanted to send to us that we were not the favourite alternate. My job is to turn that around in the next four years.”
The Liberal Party, Ms Lee believes, is a broad church, one that represents a diversity of views. She joined it because it reflected her belief in individual freedom and responsibility.
“I think we should all be free to live our lives free from judgement, provided that we take responsibility for our own actions, and that we don’t harm others. That’s my value set. When I started thinking about it from that perspective, and reading the platforms of the various parties, it aligned very much with the Liberal Party.”
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has called the Canberra Liberals “the most conservative branch … in the nation”. But they are presenting themselves as the party of multiculturalism, women’s empowerment, and the working class – platforms often associated with the left.
One of the Canberra Liberals’ greatest strengths this term, Ms Lee believes, is the diversity of the party room. “When you’re in a privileged position to be a voice for your community, the broader the experience, the better it is.”
Ms Lee is Australia’s first Asian-Australian party leader, and the Canberra Liberals’ first female leader since Carnell resigned two decades ago. She and deputy leader Giulia Jones are the ACT’s first all-women leadership team. The team includes Italian, Tongan and Malaysian Australians (Ms Jones, Elizabeth Kikkert, and Nicole Lawder).
The Liberal MLAs range from the traditional spheres of law, business, the military, social advocacy and the public service to radio announcers and country music singers. Former party leaders Alistair Coe and Jeremy Hanson are in prominent positions as Shadow Treasurer and Opposition Whip / Shadow Education Minister (among other portfolios), while Ms Lee expects new members Peter Cain and Leanne Castley to do very well.
But the Liberal leader is well aware that the next four years will be “an enormous challenge”.
“Politics is about dealing with people; you need to reach their hearts and minds,” Ms Lee said. “It’s not a rational thing, it’s not black and white, so it is going to be difficult.”
Over the last couple of months, Ms Lee has met constituents and stakeholders in her portfolio areas (climate action; economic development, tourism, and major policies) and in her electorate of Kurrajong. Although she is party leader, she believes it is important to stay engaged with her constituents. Her priority this summer, she said, will be to ensure that the community is safe; people are looking for assurance after the bushfires and the pandemic.
As opposition leader, Ms Lee said she was happy and open to working with the Labor-Greens government if she believed their initiatives or propositions were in the best interests of the ACT.
“We’re all in here [the Legislative Assembly] because we want to achieve good outcomes for our community and for the Canberra public.”
But she also promised to hold them to account. “I won’t hold back on that.”
Ms Lee said she was concerned the government has forgotten vulnerable Canberrans, “sidelining” seniors and Gungahlin residents. The clubs industry was worried about its future, and business owners about increased rates, while the hospitals were an “embarrassment”.
“What got me into politics was being able to advocate for and represent people who may not be in a position to do it for themselves. That’s what drives me.”
From a young age, she said, her parents taught her to give back to her community. Both sacrificed a comfortable life in Korea – her father worked in property; her mother was a housewife – to give their children a more comfortable life. Although in their seventies, they still work, in low-paying, manual jobs, and still have a mortgage. “That’s the life of a migrant,” Ms Lee reflected.
“When you think about all the sacrifices that they made, the best way that I can repay them is to live my life to the fullest and achieve the best that I can. … If I don’t make the most of my potential, or reach my full potential, then it’s really doing them a disservice and disrespect.”
Ms Lee is a mother herself; her daughter Mia was born last year.
“I have hopes, obviously, as every mother does for her child that she will have a better life than I have; that’s what I’ll work hard toward.”
While a proud mother, Ms Lee acknowledged secretly half-hoping that the little girl would look more like her Anglo father, so she would not have to face the racial discrimination her mother has.
“I’ll do everything I can in the role I have to create a better world for her and her generation,” Ms Lee promised.
“One free from discrimination, whether gender, ethnicity, or whatever else it might be. I also want to make sure that she lives in a city that values its citizens, that values the diversity of views, so we have the freedom we sometimes take for granted; that values its environment and the natural beauty that we’re lucky to have here in Canberra. But also a city where she doesn’t feel she is limited in terms of opportunity. That’s the kind of city that I would love to create for my daughter and her generation.”