Not every liberal wants Dutton to win in Aston

Feb 14, 2023
Peter Dutton, face in shadows.

Peter Dutton faces a stern test of his leadership and his strategies in preparing for a by-election in the Melbourne outer suburban seat of Aston. It’s in Victoria, where the Liberal Party has been on the nose, as most recently demonstrated in November by the swingeing repudiation of the party in favour of “Dictator” Dan Andrews at the state election.

Aston is on the fringe of traditional city Liberal seats which recorded heavy swings against incumbents last May, generally in the direction of the teals, but also towards young progressive Labor candidates and Greens. Alan Tudge, who has now resigned his seat to spend more time with his family was one of the few survivors of the public change of mood, but he held on only narrowly after a swing of about seven per cent.

Tudge’s own personality and behaviour may have figured in the swing, but it was clear that the result was primarily one of the Melbourne mood against the Morrison government. The Liberals lost seats, including the seat of Deputy leader and Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, because the party was seen as out of touch on issues such as climate change and respect for women. There was the taint of corruption, and secretive and unaccountable funny biz, and partisan use of public resources. The economic and administrative competence of ministers, from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, down was also under attack, including over disasters in which Tudge had played a role, including Robo-debt. Public perceptions of that were bad enough 10 months ago, after the Morrison government had acknowledged the fundamental illegality of the scheme, and its incapacity to claim more than $1 billion in welfare benefits said, wrongly, to have been overpaid. But since then, the odour of the scheme, and the role of ministers in causing the disaster, has become much more apparent.

Dutton himself is untouched by Robo-debt. But he will be struggling, during a by-election, to avoid facing up to the subject, given that many of the typical victims of the mechanistic and Kafkaesque scheme were just the sort of somewhat older than average citizens who live in the electorate. The public will forget Robo-debt only after there has been some condign punishment of its architects. Tudge was being prepared for a scapegoat role – a matter which may have influenced the timing of his resignation. But he was, frankly, too small bickies to satisfy the public appetite for a patsy, since he was only a junior minister at the relevant time. Among social security ministers with a finger in the pie during the three-term coalition rule were Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Paul Fletcher, Stuart Robert, Mitch Fifeld, Kevin Andrews, Dan Tehan, Sarah Henderson, Zed Seselja and Concetta Ferranti-Wells. Some of these may now be politically dead, but collectively the record of their management of social security and human services is a moral advantage that Labor would not likely sacrifice for the mere end of a career of a man already swinging in the breeze.

Aston is not Dutton’s ideal arena, or state for a political fight. Not for a high-minded battle of ideas, or philosophies. Nor even of rational and emotional criticisms of the policy and program workings of a Labor government already long enough in power that it must accept responsibility for the impact of decisions it has made. Nor even for an all-in mud-fight, particularly if it involves working over Dutton’s familiar ground with the politics of race, inclusion and exclusion, and sneers for “woke” and progressive causes. There’s a strong Victorian memory of Dutton’s intervention at the second last state election where he (and to his lasting shame Malcolm Turnbull) tried to base a populist law and order campaign on the alleged depredations of Sudanese gangs. The tactic rebounded, increasing Labor’s vote.

Arguments about values, or policy proposals may take second place to a mud-fight about race and wokeness, as well as sniping about the cost of living.

He’s certainly not ready for any sort of appeal to values, or for a considered program of action. Labor may have already been in power long enough to own some of its mistakes, but the coalition is, understandably, still reeling from a significant defeat, which included the loss of people regarded as being the hope of the side. Just as significant was the loss of many of the party’s moderate standard bearers. Few of these may have been admirers of Dutton, but any casual satisfaction at the departure of factional enemies has to be balanced against popular consternation that there are few genuine liberals, few women opinion leaders, and few people intent on holding the middle ground of politics. Some party conservatives argue that the party has been losing popular support because it has made concessions to party moderates, including over climate change, civil liberties and progressive causes. According to this analysis, the solution is to become more monolithically conservative. It would represent a continuation of the internal party wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when party “wets”, liberals and even some socially progressive but fiscally conservative supporters such as Malcolm Fraser, came to think there was no place for them under the Liberal umbrella.

Dutton has tried out several day-to-day tactics and positions, particularly around the state of the economy, Labor election promises, and events. He’s pushed hard on the cost of living, the impact of energy bills and the costs of interest rate increases. He’s attacked some Labor promises, for example, over increasing housing stocks, repairing access to general practitioners, the supposed lack of detail of the Voice referendum, and discontinuities in post-intervention policies in indigenous affairs, particularly in Central Australia. In most of these attacks, he has been fairly effective in exposing Labor vulnerabilities, without ever having to commit himself to any particular course of action, or even, necessarily to any sort of defence of the way the issue was being managed under the previous government. He’s a bit lucky that he doesn’t have to, because his opening bowling attack from Sussan Ley and Angus Taylor down have been uninspired and unconvincing, entirely unable to cut through.

It’s on this ground, presumably, that his campaign to win Aston will be based. That’s not, necessarily, a preview of how he would approach the next general election, or even any further by-elections that crop up. It does not even require that he become too closely engaged, provided that the party selects a presentable candidate, preferably a woman, that the organisation manage a good schedule for exposing her to the electorate, and that senior and recognisable Liberals are constantly with her for the TV and social media grabs.

But it has some gaps. What sort of a candidate does Dutton want, or more accurately believe that the electorate wants? If it is a solid conservative, even worse a previous representative rejected by the electorate last May, that candidate could be out of touch with the electorate’s mood. Even worse if the candidates have barrows to push on social issues, such as abortion, gender issues, or same sex marriage. Australian electorates are simply not polarising on this issue in the way that the American conservative playbooks suggest. By no means will voters automatically reject candidates of socially conservative views, but they have no fondness for those who make clear that their reason for putting themselves forward is to promote their own agenda. Likewise negativity, ambiguity and a constant demand for detail may well be working to swing some Voice votes away from Yes. But unease about the tactic also alarms some within the party, and reinforces doubts about whether the party is to show some ultimate bottom of principle.

Will Dutton leave the middle ground vacant for a teal candidate, trusting the electorate to have the good sense to choose a sound and colourless conservative, able to protect the goal mouth?

Dutton himself has done nothing to try to win back moderate opinion into the Liberal fold. He has not argued that they should stay rather than go. Simon Holmes a Court is readying to support a teal-style candidate, so the contrast between the selected Liberal candidate and that candidate will be clear. The teal will be presented as a Liberal in despair rather than a secret Green or Labor candidate. Experience last May has shown that that tactic did not really work anyway, given the numbers of people of impeccable Liberal pedigree embracing the candidates as refugees from the centre right. Voters will have been reminded, in any event, that many of Dutton’s backers do not really believe that small l liberals have a place in their party.

By comparison, Labor will be focused on attacking Dutton as leader- as a person and as the embodiment of the party and its values. They will have ransacked Hansard and the newspapers for statements suggesting his obstinacy and his limited policy perspective, as well as for his dog whistles about the dangers of refugees, race, white South Africans, climate change and corruption. They will be suggesting an extra layer of cruelty, heartlessness, lack of empathy and compassion than ever was demonstrated by Scott Morrison. They will probably not be working off the image drawn of Morrison- of the chronic liar, ditherer and person who never lived up to his own public relations hype. Instead, the hint will be of the somewhat alien activist and extremist, with ideas about how Australian society should be that are quite out of kilter with the views of ordinary Australians. The man in denial about whole chunks of Australian history. The culture warrior. The Labor dog whistles will no doubt focus on creating unease among migrants, ethnic groups, women, young people and people uneasy about Dutton (and the Liberal Party’s) increasing lack of regard for education and the arts – fields that, under Frydenberg and Morrison, were formally abandoned to the Labor Party.

Dutton can simply not afford to write off the votes of people in the electorate, even if he does not recognise them as being at the core of his New Liberal Party. Yet as he attempts to cosy up to them, wanting to share their anxieties about rising costs and mad ideological forays, he runs the risk of being seen as speaking with two tongues, one mild, reassuring and unaggressive for suburban folk from down south, another full of red meat and aggression for those with whom he really identifies.

Dutton is the issue. Not Albanese. Not Labor.

There’s more at stake for him than for Labor. Labor do not need the seat as such, much as they would enjoy the bragging if they won it. It is a rare thing for a government to take a seat from the opposition at a by-election. A loss, moreover, would accentuate the sense of despair among many Liberals about the future of the party, particularly in Victoria, and about the leadership it has had, at federal and state level, over the past decade. Dutton has plenty of enemies inside the party: indeed Victoria holds a special concentration of them. Many of these will not be dismayed if he fails, even if the party has no obvious challengers. In times past, after the Liberals had lost government, the leadership talent reflected some serious choices of style, philosophy, and relationship with the electorate. The 1980s, for example, saw the contests between John Howard and Andrew Peacock. The 1990s, between John Hewson, Alexander Downer and John Howard again. When Howard lost office in 2007, the Liberals flirted with Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.

Even if there were to be a jump down the generations, it cannot be said that there is an alternative leader well known to the community, respected for their experience and capacity to communicate, and ready to take the reins. But there are some who think that Dutton can only lead the party over a cliff, and that it would be better if the party were to patiently group itself around some relative novice with more risk about them, but also more potential to strike a chord with the electorate. A person of expansive thinking who takes the electorate and colleagues into their confidence. A person without the snarl, the streak of meanness and the urge to polarise and divide that has for so long characterised conservative leadership in Australia. A person able to articulate a vision of the Australia we are moving towards, able to inspire some sense of shared purpose and adventure in reaching it. Such a person might have a real chance, given the extreme limits on the charisma of Tony Albanese, and the even greater limits on his party’s willingness to take risk or think big.

As the Labor program stands, the self-imposed constraints on spending are such that the Liberals could well be on to their fourth generation of leadership post Scott Morrison before there’s a Labor leader ready to take her foot off the brake. That’s a long time for the most disadvantaged Australians to wait before they get the slightest access to the common wealth. A long time before there is equitable access to health care, or public schools able to raise a new generation of citizens to standards markedly higher than those of 60 years ago. Or to deal more decently and kindly to our neighbours and those fleeing here from war and disruption. We may have to find a new generation of leaders, on both sides, able to raise our eyes to the stars. Women may be the hope, but it would be the eternal optimist who could suggest that there is an as-yet unrecognised Angela Merkel, Joan of Arc, or even a Jacinda Ardern in the existing Liberal Party ranks.

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