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In an interview with The Saturday Paper, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton says he is prepared to work with Labor on policy and fight an election over character. By Karen Middleton.

Peter Dutton: ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that we can win’

A portrait photograph of Peter Dutton
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.
Credit: Dion Georgopoulos / Nine

Peter Dutton gets called plenty of names. His critics routinely mock his manner and his appearance.

Even so, facing the prospect of an election fought not just on competence but on character, his response is: bring it on. He thinks he will win.

“People might say that I’ve got a rough head, but they don’t say that I’ve got bad intent or that I’m not a person of my word,” Dutton tells The Saturday Paper, in a sit-down interview in his office on Thursday, to mark the start of the parliamentary year. “I take my own reputation and standing seriously because as I say to my boys, in the end, it’s your name that’s the most important thing in life.”

Dutton calculates Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has done himself more damage than he may realise in breaking his promise to deliver the Morrison government’s stage three tax cuts in full from July 1.

“I think the prime minister is a decent person who has trashed his reputation in the name of political survival,” Dutton says, professing to be shocked by the decision last month. “And I think that’s a dishonourable pathway.”

The opposition leader dismisses early polls suggesting the majority of voters will forgive Albanese because the change leans towards equity and means more money for most.

“Look at where my numbers have gone from when I first came into the leadership to where they are now,” Dutton counters, citing polls on his own popular support, which has improved but still lags behind his opponent. “Some of that will be a function of the prime minister’s failing and some of it will be a function of people meeting me, seeing me in interviews, seeing a different side to just standing up and talking about immigration or child exploitation or conflict in Ukraine or the serious issues of those hard portfolios. And I get it nonstop as I go around the country – people who say: ‘You’re nothing like I thought you were or nothing like I was told you were.’ ”

Dutton believes that response is “organic” and he is counting on more of it: “I think that continues over the next 12 to 18 months before the election.”

It’s a variation on what he said in 2018 when he quit his ministerial job to challenge Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, a move that backfired and saw Scott Morrison elected instead. At the time, he said it would give him a chance to “smile more and show a different side”. Comedians and critics had a field day.

In parliament this week, a newly buoyed Albanese ridiculed him all over again, using as his excuse the ABC documentary Nemesis, in which Dutton declined to participate.

“I was reminded that the leader of the opposition, his big commitment to be made leader was going to be like Little Miss Sunshine,” Albanese railed in Monday’s first Question Time of the year. “Instead, he gave us Jack Nicholson in The Shining, smashing through the walls, full of negativity, full of abuse.”

Dutton does not resile from his original comment, made because people were telling him he didn’t smile enough.

“The point was to say I’d had pretty serious jobs up until that point and it was good that people would be able to see me in a different role where I didn’t have to talk about serious matters at every press conference,” he responds. He claims to use the barbs as motivation.

“I think the haters will hate and there’s nothing I can do about that,” Dutton says. “I think what a lot of the critics don’t realise is that, for me, it’s fuel in the tank … So, far from deterring me or tearing me down, it actually provides me with drive to keep going.”

Dutton has a few gibes of his own in return. “I think the prime minister is institutionalised in the Canberra bubble,” he says. “He’s been here for 26 years. He didn’t have a job before he started in politics and he’s had very little exposure to the suburbs and the realities of life for many people.”

In fact, Albanese has been in parliament 28 years next month, five years longer than Dutton, who arrived in 2001. In a less direct gibe meant as a putdown, Dutton likens Albanese more to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard than to party heroes Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Dutton says the job of a prime minister is to lead tax reform, which he says Albanese is not attempting.

“We would support that through the Senate so that they didn’t have to negotiate with the Greens, and we would support it through the House, even though they don’t need our numbers in the lower house,” Dutton insists. “But the prime minister’s got no appetite for that change.”

Dutton claims to want to follow “the Howard model” of opposition and seek bipartisan policy consensus where possible. He nominates the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the sustainability of aged care as areas for collaborative reform and on which he claims to have offered support. “And there’s just been crickets.”

Dutton believes Albanese “panicked” about the upcoming Dunkley byelection in Melbourne’s south, pointing to figures showing 87 per cent of Dunkley voters will be better off, and says this is why the prime minister modified the stage three reforms. He calls Treasury’s account of how events unfolded “unbelievable”.

On Monday, Treasury officials told a Senate inquiry they began work on a possible redesign on their own initiative late last year, having been tasked to look at cost-of-living relief options, initially in the context of this year’s May budget.

They said they received a more specific request from the treasurer on December 11 – later clarifying it had originated with the prime minister – asking them to shift to a tighter time frame.

Labor sources insisted last week they had to announce the changes before the March 2 byelection prompted by the death of Labor MP Peta Murphy. If they didn’t, they said, they would be accused of hiding their plans.

Dutton says any reduction in Labor’s margin in Dunkley will be “a disaster” for Albanese. He makes a bigger call on the next federal election, insisting the Coalition can regain government.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we can win and we have to not only rely on people voting against the bad government but also in favour of a good alternative government,” he says. “And that’s why we’re working around the clock on policy at the moment. It’s why we won’t be ‘Labor lite’.”

That is based on a belief that significant numbers of people who voted for Albanese’s Labor are disappointed. Thus far, the broader Coalition is solidly behind Dutton’s approach.

Frequently a dissenter in Coalition ranks, Tasmanian Liberal Bridget Archer agrees with Dutton that the broken promise could yet damage Albanese.

Archer points out it is not just the decision itself that matters but also how it was conveyed. She has a problem with both.

“I actually think it’s pretty cynical, given you’re talking such a big game on integrity,” she says of the government. “If we’re serious about honesty and integrity in political life, it’s a spectrum. It’s not just an anti-corruption commission and that’s that.”

Archer acknowledges little backlash thus far. Among her constituents, she says, some high earners who will receive less are expressing altruistic support for helping others. Still, she believes there is an integrity question.

“I really think it’s a very big problem to say ‘it’s okay because we like the outcome’,” Archer says. “Well, what happens next time, when we don’t? If you want a better standard from your electoral representatives, you shouldn’t just let them off the hook because they’ve done something you like.”

She predicts the greater long-term political risk for Albanese is in how the change was managed. “It’s more the dishonesty in a way – the fact that they continued to deny it,” she says.

In parliament this week, the Coalition leadership struggled to land blows as Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers clobbered them for deciding to support the change to their own legislated tax cuts after saying they would not.

They zeroed in on deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley’s repeated declarations in the first 24 hours that the Coalition would oppose the changes.

Some opposition MPs acknowledge privately her comments were unhelpful. Some are sympathetic, saying she was reflecting existing policy and trying to avoid sounding equivocal or weak. Others say she should have had better judgement. One describes it as the kind of “bravado that should be kept in the room”.

Inside the Coalition party room on Tuesday there were no significant expressions of concern about the position they were taking. Dutton had phoned around in advance, taking soundings and ensuring grievances and perspectives were heard, minimising anything that could look like division.

As a result, the partyroom contributions were largely supportive or benign, including from former prime minister Scott Morrison, who defended the stage three package ahead of his pending resignation from parliament.

The meeting endorsed the proposal to capitulate but defend the principle of lower tax and work on its own pre-election tax package. Liberal senator Andrew Bragg and former frontbench MP Julian Leeser both publicly argued Labor’s decision not to abolish the 37 per cent tax bracket as planned should be reversed. Dutton supports the idea in principle but baulks at the cost.

He will say only that the Coalition’s tax policy should place less emphasis on personal income tax to raise revenue. He rules out abolishing negative gearing tax concessions on properties, or capping the number to which it could apply, as proposed by one Liberal senator.

Beyond that, he will not commit to any detail on future tax policy. Forced to support dismantling his own former government’s plan, he wants the focus on Labor.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce concurs. He points to a significant well-paid blue-collar cohort among those who will get less under the changes – people earning more than $135,000 a year – who do not consider themselves well-off and are unhappy at Labor’s change.

“After this clever little trick, have you got anything in mind for them or not?” Joyce demands of Labor. “This is your plan. So what are you going to do about them?”

Joyce says the opposition had no choice but to support the Labor move, but laments the Coalition was caught off guard. “We fell into a trap because we believed they would keep their promise … It’s double jeopardy. They’ve broken their promise and now they’re belting us over the head with [it].”

Former Liberal turned independent MP Russell Broadbent believes voters appreciate government pragmatism and says he is neither surprised at the changed policy, nor critical.

“If a government’s going to govern on behalf of the Australian people, they have to make changes when things change – when circumstances change,” he says. “The penny’s dropped. What’s more important – the need of the nation or the need to not break a promise?”

Broadbent has a unique perspective on the tax issue. He argues that if the Coalition had changed its position after the election, it could have seized the agenda and claimed political credit for what he believed was an inevitable government repositioning, instead of being put on the defensive.

Broadbent points back to the early 1990s and what unfolded when then Liberal leader John Hewson released his audacious Fightback! economic manifesto. The move delivered a multitude of lessons for leaders on all sides.

Although it was contentious, the Coalition plan made the eight-year-old Hawke Labor government look becalmed. Just a month later, Bob Hawke lost the prime ministership to Paul Keating.

The downside for Hewson’s Coalition, and a warning for future opposition leaders, was that it was deemed too radical, with a level of detail and enough perceived negatives to make it ripe for political demolition.

Fightback! paired proposed substantial tax cuts with a nine-month cut-off for unemployment benefits, the abolition of Medicare bulkbilling for all but a few, and a 15 per cent goods and services tax.

Keating set about both destroying the policy and regaining political momentum with his own economic “plan”. He delivered the One Nation economic statement to parliament a few months later, in early 1992.

Broadbent was in the chamber for the address and, exiting, found himself walking behind Keating and then treasurer John Dawkins. “That’ll fuck ’em,” he heard a jubilant Keating say.

“And it did,” Broadbent says of Keating’s devastating and unexpected 1993 election win.

The enduring lesson for an opposition is to seize momentum where it can but not in a way that will expose it to a lethal scare campaign.

This is the challenge Dutton now faces, as an election looms within 18 months.

He acknowledges it was “hard enough in ’93 for Hewson to bring in a new tax system”, let alone in the era of social media, which greatly increases the risk of fear, confusion and misinformation.

As these past lessons hung in parliament’s halls this week, the Coalition’s most stinging attack line did not come from Dutton but rather by way of a barely audible interjection during Question Time on Tuesday. As shadow ministers demanded to know if the prime minister now planned to also abandon Labor’s support for negative gearing, Western Australian Liberal backbencher Rick Wilson heckled the former Labor leader Bill Shorten, sitting just across the chamber, over the policy to abolish it that helped cost him the 2019 election.

“You should’ve just lied, Bill!” Wilson goaded.

In the din of the first day in the first week of parliament, hardly anybody heard him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Peter Dutton: ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that we can win’".

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