Paul Bongiorno
Dutton tracks the scent of victory

As this term of government rapidly nears its halfway mark, the Coalition is convinced it has a greater chance of victory at the next election than it dared imagine over the past 18 months. Peter Dutton is encouraged by continuing tightening in the opinion polls, driven largely by voters losing confidence that the Albanese government can address the cost-of-living crisis.

Anthony Albanese realises he has a daunting challenge on his hands. He must govern between now and the election, likely to be in the first half of 2025, in a way that convinces Australians there is only so much he can responsibly do. Critically, he needs to show the opposition has nothing better to offer.

That arm wrestle was intense in parliament this week, before the prime minister headed to San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Week, the last of the high-level international meetings that have become a feature of the annual summit season.

Perception, as the wisdom goes, is reality in politics and Dutton is hell-bent on a mission to shape how the public sees Albanese. On Monday, facing the prime minister for the first time after Albanese’s return from China and the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu, Dutton accused Albanese of breaking every promise made on cost relief before the last election. “Why,” Dutton asked, “are Australians paying the price for a distracted and out-of-touch prime minister failing to focus on the real issues facing Australians?”

It is easy enough for an opposition to feed these sentiments, and you could argue Dutton would be failing in his duty if he didn’t do it, but it doesn’t really take him far beyond amplifying the problem while not coming up with coherent solutions.

Senior shadow ministers say government spending should be cut but at the same time attack Treasurer Jim Chalmers for delaying infrastructure spending associated with $33 billion in cost blowouts and demanding the states stump up at least half of the funding for major projects.

Dutton’s hyperbole – that Albanese has “made poor decisions every day since” the election – loses its credibility in the face of Fitch Ratings reaffirmation of Australia’s AAA credit rating on November 9. This assessment is no doubt influenced by last year’s $22 billion budget surplus, with every indication there will be another one this year.

Albanese says his government’s decision to shield the budget surplus is important in keeping inflation in check and he signalled in Labor’s caucus this week that voters wouldn’t be promised more cost-of-living relief beyond targeted and limited measures.

Although no one is breathing a word about it in government, it makes you wonder how in these circumstances Albanese will deliver the stage three tax cuts in July 2025, with their $20 billion first year price tag and the fact they offer no relief for people earning less than $190,000. Provision for them is already baked into the numbers, but the crunch will come in next May’s budget.

Dutton has flagged he won’t let Albanese easily break that promise, but for now feels he doesn’t have to do much more than carp. His immediate problem is keeping his party together. Albanese noted Dutton has not replaced Stuart Robert, who resigned six months ago from the front bench and from parliament. Albanese, picking up on reports in the Murdoch media, says Dutton can’t “even lead his own party … because he is hampered by those people on his back bench”.

This has more to do with competing ambitions than deep fissures over policy direction. Dutton leads a party now very much in his image, deeply right-wing and reactionary on a number of social issues. This impression wasn’t helped by the shock resignation this week of veteran moderate Russell Broadbent to sit on the cross bench.

Broadbent informed Dutton on Monday and the Liberal Party room on Tuesday. He said he wasn’t quitting in anger but believed he no longer had a “licence” to represent his constituents as a Liberal after his humiliating defeat for party preselection last weekend. The 25-year Liberal MP for the Victorian seat of Monash garnered less than 10 per cent of the preselection vote, losing to businesswoman Mary Aldred, 161 to 16.

In a message to his constituents on social media, Broadbent said he was “a Liberal at heart and my values have not changed”. He said he had told his party room there were storm clouds ahead for this nation and he strongly encouraged the party to support the leader. He did not hang around to hear praise or thanks from Dutton because the leader was late to the meeting and Broadbent had an afternoon appointment back in Victoria. He will not recontest the next election and has done the party a favour by not forcing a byelection for his tight seat.

Broadbent suffered a swing against him in 2022 but managed to hold on with a three-point margin. Labor believes the seat is now more winnable without the long-time member’s high personal vote, although Victoria will lose a seat in the pending redistribution, which could affect calculations. Either way, Broadbent’s resignation does make it that much harder for Dutton to find the 20 seats he needs to return to the government benches.

Word of the Broadbent defection reached Labor’s partyroom meeting, held at the same time as the Coalition’s gathering. Albanese organised for the chair of caucus, Sharon Claydon, to ask for an update on what was happening in the other camp. Albanese said under Dutton’s leadership the Coalition is shrinking in parliament. It is down from 58 immediately after the election to 55. Broadbent joins former National Andrew Gee on the cross bench, and Dutton lost another number in the Aston byelection.

Although Broadbent is often described as a moderate, he sees himself more as an independent thinker who stands up for his convictions. He was one of only four MPs who voted against same-sex marriage, unlike Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott, who absented themselves from the chamber vote.

Broadbent was never given a frontbench position, either in government or opposition, no doubt because his outspokenness discomfited his leaders, none more so than former prime minister John Howard.

Broadbent famously crossed the floor in 2006, joining the Labor opposition in voting against the Howard government’s attempts to excise Christmas Island from the immigration zone. He was one of a powerful group of Liberal backbenchers who managed to circumscribe some of the Howard government’s harshest measures.

In 2015 Broadbent again threw down the gauntlet to his own government, publicly supporting calls from the medical profession to end indefinite detention of men, women and children on Nauru and Manus Island. He said, “Long-term indefinite detention is not good enough in this country.”

Broadbent’s words eight years ago resonate with the High Court’s ruling last week that indefinite immigration detention is unlawful where “there is no real prospect” of a person’s resettlement elsewhere “in the foreseeable future”.

Broadbent was not in parliament when his former colleagues decided to play base politics over the government’s compliance with the High Court ruling that saw the gradual release of more long-term detainees during the week. The calls became more shrill for these people to be put back into detention in defiance of the court. So much for law and order and the sacredness of the Constitution.

No claim was too outrageous to make, beginning with blaming the government for releasing “hardcore criminals” into the community, including murderers, rapists and paedophiles. Dutton later added there were security risks as well, though he had been told none were in the cohort.

Every question ignored Immigration Minister Andrew Giles’s assurances that all were on bridging visas with supervision involving state and federal police. Also ignored was the fact that those with convictions had already served their jail sentences – like every other released criminal.

The government denied it had been caught unprepared, a charge Dutton would not let go of, simply because ministers were sending confusing messages. They were looking at regulatory and legislative responses to the High Court but saying that making a safe legal response was difficult because the court had not released the reasons for its decision.

On Wednesday, knowing Albanese was about to board a plane to APEC, Dutton sprung a motion on the government during Question Time, condemning it for being unprepared for the court’s decision. He called on the prime minister to stay home until he had properly dealt with the “crisis”. In the ensuing heated debate, Albanese made no mention of urgent legislation that his government revealed later that night it would introduce on Thursday.

It looked as if Dutton had forced the government to act, although the opposition leader later claimed the response criminalising any breaking of visa conditions did not go far enough. But it was his conflation of the High Court’s decision with the rise of “vicious anti-Semitism” in Australia, especially since brutal armed conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas on October 7, that outraged Albanese.

Albanese said the “attempt to weaponise anti-Semitism in this chamber and make it a partisan issue is frankly beyond contempt”.

The prime minister pointed out that Dutton’s concerns extended only to those of the Jewish faith – the opposition leader made no mention of the Muslim and Palestinian communities in Australia also suffering anxiety and Islamophobia. In wanting to score points in this way, the Liberal leader has judged that more Australians are sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians. The Jewish community fears he is wrong. He also sees it as a useful wedge against Labor.

Albanese has a point: the tensions are so high and the mood so febrile it is time for all our political leaders to lower the temperature and work for unity, not division.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "A Broadbent church".

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