Peter Dutton – Liberal Party saviour or nemesis? Perhaps a Steven Bradbury!

Jul 27, 2022
Peter Dutton. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Australian Embassy Jakarta (CC BY 2.0)

The Liberal Party’s problem is the crumbling of its ‘liberal’ base. It’s difficult to see how the leadership of Peter Dutton – a political Steven Bradbury – can fix that problem.

Josh Frydenberg has a new job – senior adviser at investment bank Goldman Sachs. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Frydenberg had been anointed Scott Morrison’s eventual successor as leader of the Liberal Party. A perceived ‘moderate’, he was acceptable to both liberals and conservatives. But the ‘teals’ in Kooyong had other ideas.

Thanks to them, what most would have thought inconceivable a year ago happened – a Liberal Party led by Peter Dutton.

Back in 2018 Dutton was rejected by his parliamentary colleagues as too divisive, too conservative to ever lead his party to victory at the polls. So why has he been chosen now? Perhaps to some on the right of the party he was a compelling candidate, but in reality he was the only senior Liberal left standing after a disastrous election – a political Steven Bradbury.

Given the scale of the defeat in May, the Liberal Party needs to ask two fundamental questions. What is the problem, and is Peter Dutton the solution?

The problem seems clear. The election saw a collapse of Liberal Party support among small ‘l’ liberal voters. It lost six seats to teal independents. Not marginal seats that swing back and forward between Liberal and Labor but long-term Liberal Party strongholds.

Traditionally the voters in these wealthy seats have been a core component of the Liberal Party’s base. They have gone teal because they now support that movement’s major policies – action on climate change, political integrity, and gender equality.

For similar reasons, the Liberals also lost two seats to the Greens Party, including Ryan which had been held for more than 20 years.

John Howard recognised that the Liberal Party’s success depends on being a ‘broad church’. That means combining two distinct political philosophies – liberalism and conservatism.

While he was a conservative at heart, Howard was always a pragmatist. He deftly managed his party’s internal ideological conflicts with a mix of economic liberalism and soft social and cultural conservatism.

Getting the mix right has proved increasingly difficult for Howard’s successors. Partly because of their inferior political skills and partly because of the changing times. Since Howard left the stage, voters have become more liberal, more sympathetic to progressive causes – especially the young, the wealthy, the well-educated, and women.

Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right, a recent journal article by Thomas Piketty and others, identifies a gradual trend in Western democracies of women voters becoming less conservative. This is consistent with the finding in the ANU’s 2022 election analysis released in June that women “had a higher probability of having voted for the Greens”. It seems likely that was also the case for the teal independents.

Support for same-sex marriage in the 2017 postal survey is a useful proxy for assessing the degree of social liberalism in Australian electorates. The 20 electorates with the highest ‘yes’ tally in favour of same-sex marriage represent the most liberal and progressive
electorates in the country.

In the 2016 federal election, the Liberal Party held 10 of those 20 seats. In the 2019 election, after the same-sex marriage survey, that dropped to eight seats. At the last election, it fell to zero as the party lost those seats to teal independents, the ALP, and the Greens.

That’s remarkable. The Liberal Party does not hold any of the twenty most liberal seats in Australia. It’s gone from winning half of them to nothing in six years.

That looks like a schism in the broad church, a failure of the ideological balancing act. A significant section of the Liberal Party’s liberal base has departed, the section that previously constituted much of the ‘centre’ of this would-be centre-right party.

If that’s the problem, is Peter Dutton the solution? Can he win back the liberals and reclaim the centre? Absent an abysmal Labor government, it seems doubtful.

Some of Dutton’s defenders claim he’s a moderate, but, rightly or wrongly, most Australians view him as an arch conservative. And historically it’s not difficult to see why.

Over the years he’s done much to build a conservative reputation, including taking a hard line on asylum seekers, attacking the ABC, criticising African gangs in Melbourne, joking about the impact of climate change on Pacific islands, dialling up the anti-China rhetoric, boycotting the apology to the Stolen Generations, and obstructing the National Energy Guarantee, an attempt by his party to address climate change.

And of course, he voted ‘no’ in the same-sex marriage survey.

Few in the Liberal Party have done more to narrow its broad church, to repel the moderates so crucial to its electoral success, in short, to make it less liberal.

Since the election Peter Dutton has claimed he’s “passionate” about addressing climate change, but in a “sensible way”. He’s also expressed regret about boycotting the Stolen Generations apology. No doubt other ‘revisions’ will follow. But it will take a major rehabilitation of Peter Dutton’s reputation to win back disaffected Liberal Party voters and regain the centre of Australian politics.

It’s also particularly hard to imagine that the member for Dickson’s aggressive style of politics will be a major attraction to women voters.

Peter Dutton’s ascension to the Liberal leadership on his second attempt was primarily due to the absence of viable alternatives, not a deep-seated conviction that he’s the party’s saviour. Indeed, many of his colleagues must see him as having contributed to its current troubles.

That’s a perilous way to assume the leadership of a party that’s had seven leaders in the last 15 years. If he does manage to survive the current term, he’d better hope Josh Frydenberg enjoys investment banking.

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