John Hewson
This Coalition is unelectable

This is the season for stepping back a little from the frustrations of daily routines, to take stock, to reflect, even to reset.

For Peter Dutton and the opposition parties, 2023 has been a year spent scrounging around for that defining issue against the government that could make the basis of the Coalition’s strategy and narrative for the next election. Dutton’s approach is essentially to oppose the government on just about every issue, hoping to create the impression among voters of a government too incompetent and too distracted to handle such issues. The opposition hopes to persuade people it’s time Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his team were moved on, and it is already claiming voters have “worked him out”.

Although Dutton would claim a few “wins” throughout the year, things haven’t turned out as well as the opposition might have hoped. The latest Newspoll gave the Coalition some heart, with the two-party preferred vote for Labor slipping to 52-48, and the Coalition gaining a small edge in the primary vote, 36-33. Yet Albanese remained the preferred prime minister and Dutton was recently identified in a Roy Morgan poll as the “most distrusted” of our politicians, with Penny Wong being the “most trusted”.

The opposition has been saying the Voice to Parliament – which was lost to the disgracefully dishonest and racially based, Dutton-led “No” campaign – was a significant and expensive distraction for Albanese. It prefers to ignore that the prime minister was just attempting to do what was right in our national interest, in response to the guidance of First Nations people, and provide an effective basis for eliminating Indigenous disadvantage.

The Coalition claims Albanese’s distraction was compounded by extensive overseas travel that saw him neglect the cost-of-living issue domestically. Again, it prefers to ignore that this travel was very necessary and, moreover, achieved concrete results. The opposition omitted, of course, to note Albanese’s travel was in line with that of his predecessors, just as they neglected to mention the sizeable $23 billion cost-of-living package the government delivered with minimal inflationary impact. I could go on.

Dutton and his team think this is effective opposition. However, Dutton himself has lost some credibility – most noticeably, because of how quickly he dropped his commitment to a second referendum and how much he over-egged the standing and likely contributions of Jacinta Nampijinpa Price beyond her leadership of the “No” campaign. It was jarring during the campaign to hear allies of Dutton, such as former House speaker Bronwyn Bishop, run the line that Price was future prime minister material. But analysis of the referendum results confirms the majority of Indigenous people actually voted “Yes” and, in the weeks since, Price has virtually disappeared. Despite Dutton’s claims about the relevance of Price’s lived experience in Alice Springs she seems to have had little to contribute on the youth crime and alcohol issues that have plagued that community throughout this year. Also missing is any integrity in the Coalition’s claimed intention to close the gap by addressing Indigenous disadvantage, given the almost total silence on this subject since the referendum, except for Dutton’s ill-conceived call for a royal commission into sexual abuse in remote communities. This call ignored all the reviews of previous governments and exposed the worst of Dutton’s opportunism.

The reality is he and his team are still awaiting the arrival of the three policy “wise men” – or women – to give them some substance on the policy front and some vision for the future of our nation, such as is sufficient to qualify them as an effective alternative government.

Surely the low point of the year for the Coalition was its performance over the issue of the High Court’s ruling on the illegality of indefinite detention. This marked a new nadir of political behaviour. The hypocrisy has all been too much, with the daily spectacle of Dutton, shadow immigration minister Dan Tehan, deputy leader Sussan Ley and shadow attorney-general Michaelia Cash shaking with confected outrage and accusing the government of failing to ensure the “safety of our citizens”, even toying with restricting the independence of the High Court.

It would seem Dutton doesn’t much like the High Court, as he also scaremongered throughout the referendum campaign about the court’s possible interactions with the proposed Voice to Parliament.

Dutton has also been acutely sensitive to criticism of his incompetent performance as minister for home affairs in the Morrison government. The establishment of this department was little more than a massive power grab by Dutton and his bureaucratic mate, former secretary Mike Pezzullo, with little beneficial outcome. Just as in the case of robodebt, illegality was no impediment to the department’s strategy, this time in relation to indefinite detention.

An important area in which the opposition has become irrelevant is in economic policy, even though they claim to be the better economic managers. The Albanese government has worked hard to reset fiscal policy, enacting reforms to improve the functions of the Reserve Bank, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Productivity Commission and industrial relations, while delivering a significant cost-of-living package and laying the groundwork for a recovery in real wages – including an important reset of wages in the care sectors. Against this background, with its history of poor economic management under previous governments, the opposition calls for more cost-of-living relief without any indication of what form that should take and how it should be funded.

Similarly, calls for less reliance on the RBA and more on fiscal policy as an anti-inflationary strategy ring hollow. They lack detail and are just pointscoring rather than serious contributions to the policy debate.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the opposition’s year has been its echoing of the worst of former United States president Donald Trump and his Republican Party – in particular, the culture of division. At a time when good governance requires bipartisanship within a framework of integrity and accountability, this just sells our nation so short.

A critical failing of the opposition in 2023 has been its negativity over the imperative of energy transition. Its opportunistic stance on nuclear energy is of particular concern. Apparently the concept of nuclear power is little more than a thought bubble for the Coalition at this stage, as was evident in the shadow climate change and energy minister Ted O’Brien’s train wreck performance on the ABC’s Q+A recently, in which he was unable to answer obvious questions or provide any detail of the opposition’s proposals.

It is disturbing how some media outlets and senior business people continue in their concerted efforts to elevate the Coalition, in the belief Labor is being wedged from the left for looking somewhat weak on climate. A coordinated Business Council of Australia campaign seems to have been under way for years, with chief executive Jennifer Westacott calling in November 2021 for the ban on nuclear power to be dropped. And Westpac chair John McFarlane declared in March 2022 that, without nuclear power, the life of natural gas would be prolonged. Westpac continues to defend its lending to the gas industry, including Santos’s Barossa project, with the bank’s chief executive travelling to meet Tiwi Islanders this month to discuss their opposition to this $5.8 billion development.

The argument that’s been advanced in some quarters, that a combination of nuclear and gas is the best way to meet the demands of manufacturers for cheap and reliable power, ignores the advantages of zero-emissions renewable gas.

Often these arguments are not well thought through and are merely cliché-ridden polemics about how war has taught us about energy security, and that our economy was built on cheap energy, which confirms the need for more gas, onshore and offshore. They express little confidence in a renewables transition. As I have noted before, the traditional climate deniers have become renewables deniers, searching for a magic pudding solution to the energy debate. Which is all music to the ears of an opportunistic, unprincipled, evidence-denying opposition.

However, as I and a number of others have pointed out in another opinion piece recently, a number of barriers make nuclear power unviable as a solution for Australia’s energy transition within the time frame necessary to respond to the climate and cost-of-living crises.

Negativity and denial are not election-winning policies or strategies. Nor is continuing to drag the Coalition further and further to the right of the political spectrum. Dutton needs to do the work to develop a deliverable policy vision for Australia that demonstrates a capacity to listen and understand, to show compassion when required and to take the difficult decisions in addressing the many significant economic and social challenges before our nation.

Without a reset, the opposition is no shoo-in to win seats from the government, despite the recent tightening of the polls. It is most unlikely that “No” votes from the referendum will become significant support for the opposition at the next election.

The Coalition is equally unlikely to win seats from the teals. Its recent, ill-informed strategy of having hapless deputy Sussan Ley visit the seats of the independents, as if to win them back, has been a waste of time and resources. In general, the independents have effectively consolidated their hold on these seats, having done what they were elected to do – namely, represent the communities from which they arose. It is most likely, with the two major parties still collectively on the nose with weak primary votes, that community-based independents have become a permanent feature of political representation, with more to come, probably pulling further support from both the Liberals and Labor.

The Coalition as it exists today is unelectable. As for its disenfranchised voters, our disappointment persists.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "This Coalition is unelectable".

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