Opinion: Peter Dutton, Coalition lost in glow of Labor's success

Opinion: Peter Dutton, Coalition lost in glow of Labor's success
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Sunday 4 December 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Among the most striking things about Peter Dutton's first press conference as Liberal leader post-election, was the absence of the customary "we-have-listened-and-learned" statement.

These sentiments are the equivalent of the back-pat that accompanies the handshake between the two finalists at the conclusion of the Australian Open.

They affirm that both victor and vanquished not only accept the outcome, but celebrate the code itself.

In democratic terms, they attest to the ultimate wisdom of the people and the orderly transfer of power which follows.

Dutton might have said "we acknowledge that Australians were looking for faster progress on decarbonising of the economy, they want to see more women in politics, and need clear protections against corruption ... after a decade in office, there was a widening gap between those expectations and the urgency with which the government was seen to be moving".

Such contrition could have softened Dutton's own image as a conservative bruiser, while also tagging his predecessor for past mistakes.

This missed opportunity for declaring the Coalition was under new management was largely overlooked by commentators, who continued to display their in-house tendency to view events through the eyes of those they were reporting 'on' rather than those they were reporting 'to'.

Dutton's priority, they helpfully opined, had to be holding his party room together - voters' interests be damned.

This common journalistic failure had already seen many of them underplay the importance of the brewing backlash in the Liberal heartland ahead of the election, as they overstated the 'natural' legitimacy of major party candidates. There was no contrition there, either, just quietly.

Still, Dutton certainly agreed, proving just as Malcolm Turnbull had privately agreed to be dictated to by ultra-conservatives in his party room, Dutton would look to them first, lest there be dissent.

There's an exquisite irony in the fact Dutton felt his options were being so circumscribed because it was his hard-line forces in Abbott's eccentric government who reluctantly agreed to back Turnbull - albeit on excruciating terms that would ultimately neuter his premiership. Terms that included retaining Abbott's bizarre marriage equality plebiscite, and not progressing the republic or emissions trading at all.

Now it seems, Dutton finds himself no-less constrained. This partly explains why six months into his leadership, the 'grand canyon' between the Coalition and the community it seeks to represent has only widened. Even amid a full-blown cost-of-living crisis.

As the parliamentary year wound up last week, the clarity of purpose evident in the respective sides was a pointer to future success.

As ministers rose to the despatch box to tick off their "to-do-list", the opposition could only squirm.

It was an asymmetric performance showing Albanese as the wise parliamentary tactician he had become as manager of government business under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

His government had legislated everything it had promised to do, including its controversial changes to the industrial relations system restoring unions to workplaces, under the rubric of getting wages moving.

Twenty-six years in parliament had taught Albanese IR would inevitably be the most costly issue in partisan political terms, so should be done early despite legitimate crossbench claims it was being rushed. Paul Keating had reminded him political capital drains fast whether used or not.

With 2023 set to be dominated by the looming Voice to Parliament referendum debate, Albanese wanted to have contentious IR changes done and dusted. Ditto territory voting rights, and multiple other matters.

No federal government in Australian history has had a better opening six months, which only served to underscore the Coalition's drift from favour.

On its side of the House, the parliamentary year wrapped up with 'guess who' still shaping the brand?

If karma is your jam, try this one: when the Liberal 'right' decided to axe Turnbull in 2018 to install Dutton as PM, a terrified party opted for Scott Morrison to stop the hard-line challenger being installed.

While very few liked Morrison personally, the moderates joined with panicking marginal seat MPs in opting for Morrison judging (the more internally popular) Dutton to be electoral poison and a one-way ticket to oblivion. Morrison was a blank page and believed less likely to lead to a rout.

In other words, they only went to the low-profile Morrison to avoid the high-profile Dutton. Now they've got both at once.

Last week, Dutton's morally confused Liberals refused to back a censure motion against Morrison for deceiving cabinet and, more importantly, the parliament by secretly acquiring ministerial powers. This amounted to an endorsement of Morrison's behaviour even though they will back legislative changes which were only made necessary by Morrison's extraordinary deceptions.

If Labor finished the year on a high, the Liberals limped to the end in appreciably worse shape than they were in when bundled from office.

Having failed to disown Morrison's policy failures in government, Dutton then failed to stand up for accountability in Parliament when Morrison's secret breaches became known. If voters struggled to know what the Liberals stood for under Morrison's vacuous and combative leadership, they are none-the-wiser now.

Three elections now in succession (South Australia, federal, Victoria) have seen it go sharply backwards as a brand. Politically speaking, it is trading while insolvent.

The road to meaning will require Dutton to stop courting the applause of fanatics on Sky "after dark" or worrying about the feelings of disgraced former leaders.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

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Updated:  5 December 2022/Responsible Officer:  RSHA Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications