Victoria’s Liberals need to define who they are before deciding who can lead them back from oblivion

<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Victoria’s Liberals might be searching for a new leader but it’s clear from Saturday’s emphatic election loss that the party needs more than a new face to become electorally competitive in the state once more.

On Sunday the opposition leader, Matthew Guy, announced he would step down after leading his party to a second crushing defeat, with this loss arguably worse than the 2018 “Danslide”.Despite Liberal party headquarters reporting in the latter stages of the campaign that it had “narrowed the gap” on Labor, at the time of writing, the Liberals were on track to win 16 seats – a net loss of one.

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And with a primary vote sitting on 29.7% – its lowest result since 1952 – it’s clear the party’s problems run far deeper than just who their parliamentary leader is.

“We haven’t been able to define who we are, what we stand for and what we believe in,” one Liberal party elder said.

“We went into the election with absolutely no direction. Just a string of random policies and a vague plan to fix the healthcare system that no one could trust because unlike Labor, it’s not a strength of ours, there is no brand equity there.”

Liberal members have privately attributed the result to several issues: the commitment to shelve the suburban rail loop project despite its popularity among voters in the east, a lack of support among key voting groups including young women and the Chinese community, and a lacklustre narrative of what the party stands for, other than a visceral hatred of the premier, Daniel Andrews.

One Liberal MP pointed to the party’s failure play up its greatest strength – economic management – at a time when the state’s finances are in their weakest position since the 1990s.

“I’m not saying we should have gone to the election with plans to cut or increase taxes but we could have presented as sound economic managers,” the MP said. “We could have delivered a plan to ease Victorians’ concerns about debt.”

Instead the opposition promised to to spend $34bn – more than triple Labor’s commitments.

The shadow treasurer, David Davis, was also unable to provide a total cost for the Coalition’s election commitments two days before the poll, which several MPs described as a “massive blunder”.

“Someone clearly hadn’t done their homework,” one MP said.

The former Liberal MP Tim Smith said Davis, the deputy Liberal leader, David Southwick, and the opposition health spokesperson, Georgie Crozier, should not recontest leadership positions.

“The entire parliamentary leadership team should follow [Guy] out the door,” he tweeted.

Several MPs were heartened by double-digit swings towards the Liberals in outer suburban seats including Broadmeadows, Greenvale, Mill Park, St Albans and Yan Yean, even though the swings were absorbed by large margins.

One MP said the result was “a crack of sunlight in an otherwise disappointing result”.

“The fact a seat like Greenvale, which went to the election with a 22% margin, is now more marginal than a seat like Ringwood is beyond belief,” the MP said.

The suburbs may hold more lessons on how to improve the party’s fortunes.

The Liberals preselected a diverse range of candidates from different cultural and faith groups “that looked like the community they sought to represent”, the MP said, and ran a strong grassroots campaign.

“If we keep doing this work for the next four years, and get women back on side – because quite frankly, they loathe us right now – then I see a pathway forward for us.”

The Liberals’ women problem is made more obvious by the fact there is seemingly no genuine female leadership contender in the race, with Louise Staley likely to have lost her seat of Ripon to Labor’s Martha Haylett, and Crozier apparently ruling herself out, according to the Age.

Several Liberal MPs told Guardian Australia that the Warrandyte MP, Ryan Smith, has been canvassing support for a leadership bid, as has the Berwick MP, Brad Battin, and the party’s Hawthorn candidate, John Pesutto. None have responded to requests for comment.

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Pesutto’s seat is unlikely to be called for some time, as it remains on a knife edge with him leading the “teal” independent, Melissa Lowe, by 480 votes on Sunday.

Another possible contender Matt Bach, the shadow transport infrastructure minister, although this would require the upper house MP to find a lower house seat.

With recriminations and a lot of soul-searching ahead for the Liberal party, many might be asking themselves whether it’s a job they even want.