When Donald Trump was elected United States president in 2016, one of the many entrenched right-wing Liberal members in Victoria posted on social media a photo of himself proudly wearing a red baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Make Victoria Great Again”. I immediately suggested to several people in the party that this would not bode well, given Trump’s overt racism and sexism, and that they should “lose the caps”. A lot of water has passed under the Liberal Party bridge, but since the leadership coup against former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, we’ve seen a clear emergence of Trumpian politics in the party.
It’s 14 months since Peter Dutton became opposition leader, during which time we’ve seen his attempts to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Scott Morrison. The Liberals can barely conceal their desire to see Morrison quit the parliament, to clear the air for the party. Morrison’s shamelessness knows no bounds, though – so for as long as he has his taxpayer-funded salary, his endless leave days and his legal costs covered for his role in robo-debt, he’s not leaving those green seats.
The Liberals’ attempt to claim their win in the Fadden byelection as vindication of Dutton’s approach was cringeworthy. As Barrie Cassidy said on Twitter, “a party in opposition holding a seat but failing to get the average by election swing is like a tennis player holding serve. No big deal.” It is delusional to assume from this result that the party has turned a corner.
The Fadden win may have given the Liberal Party a moment of joy and, if Morrison does leave, they may find some temporary relief from their past – but they are stuck with a much bigger problem. Namely, that Dutton is similar to Morrison.
These co-ringleaders of the leadership coup against Turnbull use and abuse their power and attempt to coerce any progressive, small-l liberals or anyone in their sights who doesn’t align with their hard right-wing stance. The difference is mainly in delivery: Dutton is clunky, more awkward and in opposition; Morrison was more covert, with more rat cunning and the power of a prime ministership.
Both recognised, in their first year as party leaders, that they had an image problem. Dutton recently released a public relations video in which his wife, seemingly following a script, says he “has empathy”. Her statement recalls Morrison hiring an empathy coach, at a cost of $190,000 to the taxpayer.
These cosmetic interventions are based on the offensive assumption that voters are as ignorant as both Dutton and Morrison happily portray themselves to be. Feigning obliviousness and distraction is characteristic of both leadership styles, and both prefer to denigrate rather than listen to experts. They are adept at spreading misinformation for political gain. So much so that one of their own, former party strategist Tony Barry, was moved on the night of the New South Wales election to describe the party as an “ugly baby”.
Dutton and Morrison often appear as a kind of Trumpian tag team, both having made their fair share of xenophobic comments. Whether it’s anti-China rhetoric or Dutton’s reference to “African gangs” in Melbourne, their comments often seek to create fear. In his criticism of the medevac bill prior to the 2019 election, which sought to bring asylum seekers and refugees from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia for medical treatment, Morrison backed Dutton’s baseless assertions that such care would lead to Australians being “displaced” in the healthcare system. The then Immigration minister said, “I don’t want to see Australians who are in waiting lines at public hospitals kicked off those waiting lines because people from Nauru and Manus are now going to access those health services” – a claim that was instantly rejected by hospitals.
Telling lies, bending the truth or avoiding accountability are Trumpian afflictions shared by both men. They dismiss the lessons that should have been learnt about integrity. Morrison takes misdirection to a whole new level and this has been well documented. Most recently, when the commissioner for the robo-debt royal commission rejected Morrison’s evidence as “untrue”, he responded that the findings of these extensive hearings were “contradicted by documentary evidence presented to the commission”. That’s despite 675 pages of substantive evidence in the report. Dutton, almost in solidarity with his predecessor, showed not one ounce of contrition or accountability in relation to robo-debt and simply said Labor used the commission’s findings to politicise the Fadden byelection. He omitted to note the royal commission was well under way before the byelection became necessary due to Stuart Robert’s resignation.
And then we saw the Dutton-led campaign during the last sitting week to pursue an absurd conspiracy theory that Labor was the villain in the case of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins against Bruce Lehrmann for alleged rape in 2019. (Lehrmann denies the allegation.) The persistent accusations from a conga line of Liberal senators that the minister for Women, Katy Gallagher, had leveraged Higgins’s case for political advantage displayed a lack of humanity and awareness of the impact that this would have on all women who have experienced workplace misconduct and sexual harassment or assault. That it all imploded over allegations against Liberal senator David Van while he was in the midst of another diatribe against Gallagher only reinforces the Liberals’ incompetence in relation to the treatment of women.
Dutton and Morrison share a distinct US Republican style and Trumpian flourish. The Trumpian technique of distortion sets up the premise that only a select “elite” group is concerned about important social issues. Morrison started this with his references to the “Canberra bubble”, and Dutton has copied this approach to denigrate the “Yes” campaign by referring to it as a “Canberra Voice”. He now refers to groups supporting the Voice variously as the “corporate elites”, the “Canberra elites” and the “academic elites”.
We got an inkling of just how low Dutton would go in relation to the referendum when he described the Voice as Orwellian and claimed it would “re-racialise Australia”.
His statement was almost as bad as the squirming response of so-called “leading moderate” Senator Simon Birmingham in a Radio National interview, in which he persistently avoided giving a direct answer as to whether he agreed with his leader. The only two identifiably moderate outliers of the federal Liberal Party are the former shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser and the federal member for Bass, Bridget Archer. Leeser quit the frontbench on principle regarding the Voice, and Archer’s honesty and readiness to cross the floor on principle has been demonstrated. Both have been subject to rumours about preselection challengers – a further sign of the Liberal Party turning on itself to finish off the remaining federal moderates.
The distortions over the Voice, or any progressive social issues, are reinforced by the right’s accomplices, which here, as in the US, typically include the Murdoch press. Increasingly prominent among them is conservative lobby group Advance. It has former prime minister Tony Abbott on its advisory board and has deep links to religious, conservative and US-based political organisations and consultancies, as outlined by Guardian Australia this month. In an interview for that story, Ed Coper, a global expert on misinformation and politics online, said Advance was out in force on the “No” campaign, using a playbook “very similar to the Trump ecosystem”. Their campaigns are sustained, negative and personal. They operate with an underbelly of racism and sexism. They were active against Zali Steggall, Kerryn Phelps and me in 2019, and against the teal independents in 2022.
A few weeks ago, The Australian Financial Review published an advertisement placed by Advance in support of the “No” vote. The ad depicted Wesfarmers chair Michael Chaney with his daughter Kate Chaney, the teal independent MP for the Western Australian seat of Curtin, sitting on his knee in a teal-coloured tutu. The executive waves money at a dancing Thomas Mayo, an author and signatory to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, saying, “Don’t worry sweetheart, it’s just shareholders money.”
The newspaper apologised for the ad and said “it should not have run”. Dutton did not denounce the ad and it’s notable that it channelled his criticisms against high-profile supporters of the Voice in the private sector. He has said that companies supporting the “Yes” vote “lack a significant backbone”, and described the donations of prominent corporations such as Wesfarmers, BHP and Rio Tinto to the Yes23 campaign as pandering to popularity. The Advance ad might as well be a symbol of the current Liberal Party’s leadership and a politics of power and control that is coercive, misleading and toxic.
Dutton doubled-down in relation to corporate Australia – as if attempting to appeal to an anti-big business sentiment – by saying that when he hands over his credit card at Coles or Bunnings, he doesn’t want his money going to an “activist CEO”. He went on to say the Liberal Party supports “tradies and workers”, as if the millions of people with jobs in these companies aren’t workers or employees.
Unfortunately, these dynamics and the misuse of power are enabled by laws and a political system that suits Morrison’s and Dutton’s style. It is astounding that it is not illegal to lie in political advertising, and so it is not illegal to lie in the referendum campaigns for the Voice. This is totally different to the corporate standard – it is against the law for an organisation to engage in misleading and deceptive conduct, or even conduct that is likely to mislead.
This week, the pamphlets containing the “Yes” and “No” cases for the referendum have been released, in a churning pool of misinformation, disinformation and distortion, and there is nothing anyone can do about it – there will be no fact-checking by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Amid the swirling lies and rhetoric, those who are undecided, or who are contemplating voting against the Voice and recognition for Indigenous people, should consider one simple fact: every racist will vote “No”. Not everyone who votes “No” will be a racist, but it’s to be hoped their opposition isn’t grounded in the politics of division and misinformation and the dynamics of an abuse of power and control. As Linda Burney, the minister for Indigenous Australians, said in her Press Club address early this month, the “No” campaign “is importing Trump-style politics to Australia. It is post-truth. And its aim is to polarise. Its aim is to sow division in our society by making false claims.”
If we don’t wake up to a “Yes” vote the morning after the referendum, we might well see a resurgence of red baseball caps, and a victory for the Trumpists in Australia.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Donald Trump and the Liberal Party".
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