Over Dutton now looms the spectre of a quick trip to Government House

Apr 16, 2024
Beautiful scene of sunset at Parliament House Canberra, Australia

By mid-May, Budget time, the Albanese government will be a week short of two years in power. Albanese is moving into the zone where he could confidently approach the Governor-General, new or old, for an early election, perhaps as early as July, unexceptionably in October or November.

I can’t see any parliamentary problem needing to be resolved by an appeal to the people. And I cannot see the timorous Albanese having an instinctive appetite for a repeat of his woes of the last election. But there’s a very good reason why he should be publicly flirting with his options, even with limited intentions.

Doing so is likely to bring to a head Opposition realisation that it is woefully prepared for an election. Ill-prepared with positive policies, especially ones spanning the range of government. Running an argument about nuclear power that seems likely to be divisive in different areas, and which may ultimately be turned on its head by Labor. Ill-prepared with strategies and tactics likely to stand up through a five-week campaign, even if, as many expect the lines of negative attack – over boat people, taxes, wokeness and alleged broken promises – are settled, and fairly effective, given Labor cowardice and incompetence.

Even less prepared organisationally, whether with candidates, or active and enthusiastic state party organisations in a position to run a strong campaign. Nor too flush with funds, given recent calls on their resources, either. Fundraising on the hop is inevitably more difficult when the prospect of victory seems uncertain or unlikely.

Queensland may be the best prepared in terms of a functioning party apparatus. But there will be a state election on October 24, and competition for campaigning resources. One can run some themes in parallel, but the Liberal Country Party, with some experience of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory will know Labor has incumbency status at both state and federal level, and, accordingly, a better capacity to coordinate.

Tensions which made the NSW Liberal machine dysfunctional at the last state and federal elections are largely unresolved, and preselection processes, some already in train, can be expected to renew tensions. NSW and Victoria, at the last election, saw moderate Liberals in inner city seats displaced by independent community candidates with strongly organised campaigns and passive assistance from Labor, which cannot hope to win such seats. These independents, mostly called teals, campaigned on action on climate change and environmental protection, corruption and proper process in government, and had a small-l liberal approach on social issues, including gender rights and the power or right of religious institutions to discriminate against students or teachers.

The defeat of the coalition saw party opinions divide among those who argued that the party should have a broader umbrella, moving back to the centre and winning back the support of those who had voted for Teals. Others argued that the party needed to shift to the right, and to become more conservative. Peter Dutton has been of this camp, if anything more hardline now than two years ago. He could not easily soften his position in a way that would convince moderates, even ones who would be unlikely converts to Labor.

Liberals must decide if they really want to abandon seats to the teals.

Dutton appears to have abandoned any idea of wooing inner-city voters, instead claiming to be leading a party of the real working class in outer suburbs. His success at the Voice referendum shows his capacity to harness politics of resentment. But it is far from clear that such support, if achieved, could or would translate disaffection into many extra seats for the coalition. Even if it did, it is difficult to see his campaign retrieving any teal seats, or any outer-suburban wins making up for the lost ten or so seats now held by community independents.

The Liberal Party could not win back power unless it can capture significant seats in Victoria and West Australia, as well as in NSW. But successive debacles in Victoria and West Australia have put the party into disarray. This is not only reflected in diminished numbers in state parliamentary parties, but acrimonious pre-selections and in continuing feuds, and sometimes litigation, between factions. It is hard to see Labor holding on to all its 2022 gains in Western Australia, but the fact that some of the diminished Liberal membership would prefer to fight each other than the Labor Party is a good start to doing so.

Dutton has been effective in holding his team together, with only rare signs of fundamental differences on public display. Just how well that unity can be maintained when Labor seeks to exploit differences about the cost and future of nuclear power, including attempting to fix candidates with views about the location of power stations, or waste dumps in their electorates, has yet to be seen. Likewise, even those who are sceptical about whether renewable energy can quickly take up the slack caused by the closure of coal stations are hardly likely to be impressed by the time it would take to get nuclear power stations operational, even assuming that the economics could be made to stack up. The reality of climate change and global warming has now galvanised most of the population, and old treatments simply denying the changes, or insisting that renewable alternatives won’t work are unlikely to get much traction.

Labor is vulnerable, to a degree, to complaints about rising prices and the cost of living. It is one of the reasons it has put so much into assisting sectors facing problems. But the coalition must know that there could be no election before July 1, if the budget is to be passed. Otherwise, Australia is doomed to a half-senate election within two years.

Tax cuts and Budget goodies may change cost of living equation.

On July 1, the stage three tax cuts, as amended by Labor, come into effect, putting perhaps an extra $40 a week into the ordinary wage-earner’s pockets. Along with that comes any extra carefully tailored Budget measures. It is likely that the Reserve Bank will bring interest rate relief soon. The issue may not run as strongly in an election campaign, even if the electorate thought, against recent evidence and almost conscious lack of new policies, that the coalition was more likely to keep the cost of living down. That’s in part for want of any sort of presentation of economic policy, the virtual absence of Angus Taylor and the erratic performance on such issues of Peter Dutton, Sussan Ley and Nationals leader, David Littleproud. It would be almost impossible to divine what coalition economic policy was from various contradictory statements by these three.

Another factor that a prime minister determined to keep the opposition on its toes would bear in mind is that the US presidential elections are in early November. As things stand it will be Biden v Trump. But either could die or become disabled (perhaps by court action) before the ballot, and one cannot discount the possibility of bizarre Supreme Court interventions having the consciously intended effect of making things easier for Trump.

If Trump is elected, at least a 50:50 possibility, there will be great immediate uncertainty about the meaning of the result for Australia. Will Trump repudiate AUKUS agreements made between Australia, Britain, and the US, perhaps also with Japan? Will Trump, as he has threatened, extend the trade wars with China, and what would be the impact on Australia? Does Trump intend to pull the plug on Ukraine, and go all out for Benjamin Netanyahu? Will Peter Dutton adopt any of the sometimes-incoherent dog whistles and populist rhetoric of Trump, particularly in relation to immigration and the primacy of white folk of European stock?

Who knows? It is usually said that when national security issues are to the forefront, Labor is at a disadvantage. It certainly is now, having adopted, without nuance or liberality, all of the policies of Peter Dutton in the last government. That said, there’s also an advantage, and a bully pulpit, in favour of the incumbent government when international issues and uncertainties are to the fore. The last election seeing a change of government after a campaign in which the incumbents argued about Australia’s place in the world was in 1972, which Gough Whitlam won.

Some will ask whether Labor deserves to be re-elected, given its very disappointing and timid performance in government. That’s an interesting question upon which opinions may be reserved. But it is a different issue. First, the fitness for office of Peter Dutton and the coalition is equally at issue, and voters will be weighing not only their feelings about and enthusiasm for Albanese but their hopes, expectations and fears if Peter Dutton were to become prime minister. Second, the business of campaigning and reading voters’ minds is a specialised art. But all things being equal an incumbent government in its first term, which has made no catastrophic mistakes nor been involved in any substantial scandals would usually be judged worthy of at least a second go. More so when the opposition has yet to reorganise after defeat, has presented no comprehensive policies for government other than a dubious and sloganistic nuclear policy. Maybe we should infer from the silence a coalition intention to have more of the same substance and style of government as during the Morrison years.

If campaigning cannot defeat Dutton in open battle, Labor ought to give the game of politics away.

Time for Labor to put up and to debate policies it proudly owns.

But that’s an argument for what Neville Wran once described as keeping the blow torch on the belly. The prime Minister and ministers should not take the opposition’s deficiencies for granted but take every opportunity to show the public why its own policies are better. It should, as Dutton did in government, be continually setting up little parliamentary tests that the opposition is bound to fail, if only because Labor is playing at home. It must be on the front foot, and have the opposition on the defensive, on all of the issues where the Dutton attacks are strongest: on immigration and refugee policy, on foreign relations and defence, on global warming and environmental protection, and, of course, on its “strong” issues: health, education and social welfare. It badly needs achievements in housing and hasn’t any worth speaking of yet.

On the defensive side, Labor should be moving for policies of its own, rather than pale imitations of policies devised by Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton. It should cease to act as though it has a guilty history, or a poor record in relation to our foreign and defence relations – a history and record which has made us run to a deeply conservative and ideological mother. It should stop acting as if Australian foreign policy is determined by polemicists from The Australian, American consultants brought in by the defence department and bodies funded by the arms industry. Rather than seeking cover whenever criticised by politicians with backgrounds in the SAS or the Institute of Public Affairs, or both, it should have its own experts and advocates (though not, please, Richard Marles) speaking first for discernibly Australian interests.

Labor has achievements in health, education and welfare, including improving the lives and incomes of professional carers. But it is not triumphing them effectively, and the electorate has already forgotten many of the things that have been done. The ministers in this field are very able, and policy focused. But they need also to be more political and combative, and not merely in question time, where reading answers to Dorothy Dixers does not speak to the Australian population.

The biggest positive from having the coalition on election alert would be the creation of some timetabling for putting their policies and ideas on public display. And not only for the purpose of debate and criticism in the House of Representatives but in the public forums at which public opinions are formed. Can they be dragged away from mere criticisms and carping into expositions of what they would be doing instead? Can they be made to put figures next to commitments, and be made too embarrassed to claim that any change would be funded by cuts in waste and fewer public servants? Can the litany of maladministration scandal – Robodebt, PWC and discretionary Covid spending — be attached to some admission that the coalition parties collectively stuffed up, beyond the misconduct and incompetence of individual players. Can we draw out from the opposition some statement of future practice in relation to discretionary grants, and about their politically partisan deployment around electorates? Can shadow ministers be held accountable for their campaigning and election rhetoric when they are seeking support to replace Dutton as leader of the opposition? I don’t have my hopes up, but it would be instructive – and entertaining – to watch them trying to escape the blowtorch.

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