Dutton plays to his base while Albanese neglects his

Apr 20, 2024
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Next month marks two years since the Albanese Government came to power on 22 May 2022, leaving just one year remaining for his government to implement its agenda. At this critical time, significant numbers of Labor Party members and supporters have found themselves thinking of his government in power as Liberal-lite.

That view was initiated in 2023 by Paul Keating’s verbal assault on Anthony Albanese, Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles over what he called their wrong-headed adoption of AUKUS. Agreeing to Scott Morrison’s AUKUS frolic from Opposition in September 2021 is not the same as embracing the $368 billion nuclear submarine purchase and associated onuses after winning government in 2022, his critics say.

If Albanese is positioning his Labor Government to emulate Tony Blair in 1997 when he followed in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher and John Major with New Labour, there are two apparent ways to look at why he’s doing it.

One way is to see him playing a long game by taking the ground from the Coalition as an electable option for the foreseeable future in Australian politics. That view involves reminding ourselves that Thatcher once cited Blair’s New Labour as her greatest Tory achievement. The view found its culmination in Blair’s hasty commitment to George W Bush’s Coalition of the Willing in its appalling Iraq adventure on a false premise, and despite opposition to it by 199 of his own parliamentary Labour colleagues.

That adventure more than any other signalled Blair having won grudging acceptance as a member of the traditional British ruling class, even to the point of winning the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch’s conservative media empire. That said, mindful that Murdoch personally nudged Blair into making a commitment to Bush’s Iraq war, as revealed by Blair’s communications adviser Alistair Campbell, the question remains as to whether Murdoch was supporting Blair, or Blair was jumping to Murdoch’s tune.

The second way of looking at Albanese since May 2022 is less generous, and involves thinking of his activity in power more as a personal vanity exercise than much to do with a long-term Labor strategy. There were clues early that suggest such a view is not fanciful. One was a mysterious meeting with Lachlan Murdoch that took place in 2022, about which he refuses to speak. Another was the insulting restriction of adviser numbers to serve the new Teal members who had been elected. Those MPs were natural Labor allies who had soundly beaten Labor opponents in their heartland, yet Albanese treated them in ways that didn’t differentiate them from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation senators. In addition, his behaviour failed to acknowledge that the new Teals successfully campaigned on the big issues of global warming, corruption and gender equity, issues that greatly damaged the Liberal Party and which Labor’s small-target strategy had prevented it campaigning on vigorously. If Albanese was going to do politics differently, as he had promised, it would need to be visible in his treatment of the Teals, but it wasn’t. Other clues were his intervention in his son’s gift of a Qantas Chairman’s Lounge membership and his counterproductive appearance at events such as the Australian Tennis Open final after he had taken away the Stage 3 tax cuts from a great many of the well-heeled attendees at that event.

On a less petty perspective, Albanese’s unquestioning embrace of AUKUS and US positioning on containment of China and the Israel-Palestine conflict have placed him more firmly than many Labor voters would like within the Liberal Party/NewsCorp foreign policy and national security policy continuum. Not that he has been given credit for it. On the contrary, he was cautioned by Peter Dutton early in his term not to spend any of the proposed Stage 3 tax cuts on AUKUS, and was relentlessly attacked when the High Court declared indefinite detention of refugees illegal and 179 refugees were released into the community. Instead of standing by the High Court decision as Attorney General Mark Dreyfus did, Albanese reprimanded Dreyfus for being rude to a NewsCorp journalist. He also began drafting laws that gave legitimacy to a Dutton media campaign on the refugee release that can best be compared to Donald Trump’s sweeping denigration of dark-skin foreigners as murderers, rapists and paedophiles. Along similar lines, in February Albanese entertained supposed Coalition horror at the arrival of a boat in Western Australia carrying 39 suspected asylum seekers. What he could have been doing instead was remind his LNP critics of the dire national security consequences of discussing ‘on water matters’ publicly, one of the Liberal Party’s articles of faith during the Abbott and Morrison years. Instead, he legitimised their faux outrage and offended much of his Labor base.

While Albanese is neglecting his base at best or being openly disrespectful of them at worst, Dutton has been running a campaign through friendly media exclusively directed at his conservative Coalition base, with no attempt to win middle Australia. While Dutton doesn’t need to pay attention to AUKUS, he continues to needle Albanese on China and the Israel-Palestine conflict, adopting bellicose positions on both to make Labor’s positions look weak and indecisive. He damns Penny Wong for reaffirming bipartisan policy on a two-state Middle East solution and reminds Labor of the necessity of keeping trade routes open in the South China Sea, playing down the ground-breaking work Labor had done in persuading China to drop restrictions on $20 billion of Australian export trade with China. NewsCorp outlets helpfully characterised those achievements as Albanese indulging himself in holiday trips overseas.

On any measure Dutton’s combative adoption of a pro-nuclear energy policy has zero chance of winning the hearts and minds of middle Australia, but it appeals to those among his base who derive pleasure from provoking woke lefties. The policy has the additional attraction of adding another element of confusion to the mix in the long-running climate war by appearing to offer a solution to global warming that negates a resort to solar and wind options. If the Australian voter doesn’t quite understand how that all works, they are in good company because Dutton has ensured that he remains ignorant of the fundamentals. While he persists in reciting lines about sun not shining and wind not blowing as though batteries were never invented, he has also refrained from seeking advice, to which he is entitled as Opposition leader, from the Australia Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) or the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSTA). Writing for Michael West Media, former Senator Rex Patrick has revealed through FOI requests that Dutton has never approached either agency, which would be his first stopping-off point were he serious about developing a nuclear energy policy for implementation. Instead, he plays undergraduate politics to please his base and confuse the wider electorate in an area where an outbreak of clarity would not be helpful to his cause of the moment.

What is now apparent a year out from a 2025 election is that the leaders of both major parties are courting the voters at the conservative end of the political spectrum and neglecting the political centre and the left. The strategy suits Dutton because it keeps Liberal leadership speculation at bay, but it’s high risk for Albanese because it assumes Labor voters have nowhere else to turn. It’s an assumption built on the hope that Green and Teal voters will give their preferences to Labor when the crunch comes. But it’s just a hope at a time when Albanese is sounding equivocal and weak on immigration and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Dutton is sounding certain and strong about everything.

Despite his low personal popularity, Dutton’s leadership looks secure within a leadership team wafer-thin on talent. By contrast, Albanese’s Cabinet includes ministers of the calibre of Tony Burke, Clare O’Neil, Jim Chalmers and Jason Clare, each of whom is a highly credible leadership option. So much so that they would be preferred as leader by many supporters of the Government who see Albanese’s departure from Labor values as legitimising his opponents’ faux indignation and risking the loss of voter support from the political centre.

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