Bridget Archer has a modest proposal. The Liberal Party and the Nationals should dissolve their coalition agreement and formulate individual policies while in opposition. She can see her own party’s drift from relevance. She can see the way Peter Dutton has quickly given up the values she thought were inherent.
“The loser in the current arrangement is the Liberal Party,” she told the Nine papers. “If we aren’t able to differentiate ourselves from the Nats in an intentional way, and create a deliberate return to the Liberal Party of Australia and its values, we are making a deliberate decision to be a party that only represents the regions.”
Dutton makes no secret of his contempt for cities. He cultivates a bumpkin politics, a country mouse fear of state capitals and the ideas held in them. He has given up frontbench seats for Nationals. He has allowed the junior partner to lead on policy.
There is no electoral logic to this. There are not enough seats for Dutton to win office in the bush. At the last election, the Liberal Party lost all but four of its inner-metropolitan members. It cannot form government without winning these back.
An unnamed Liberal says: “The Nationals’ tail wagged the Liberal dog, and so we lost seats, and they lost no seats at all.” Without irony, Barnaby Joyce says: “You should always try and make a marriage work if possible.”
Dutton’s retreat to the country is ideological. It is where he feels safe. There are no ideas there to challenge him, no one whose difference makes him uncomfortable. He can forget about climate change and talk to white people about Black rights. If the country were Maranoa, he would rule for a hundred years.
Of course, this vision of the bush is largely imagined. Climate change is already wrecking the country and the people who farm it want action. The migrants Dutton demonises are needed for productivity. Yet for him the bush is a simple place where boys have boys’ names and conservative politicians always win.
Archer has crossed the floor 27 times since she entered parliament in 2019. She spoke in favour of the censure of Scott Morrison. She stood up for a national integrity commission. Every time she criticises the Liberal Party, and every time her criticism is ignored, she reminds the country of just how small and mean conservative politics is.
Dutton meanwhile sits on cuckoo eggs. He is more than happy to give his party to the Nationals. Certainly he doesn’t know what to do with it. The answers are all in cities that he’s too afraid to visit.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Country mouse politics".
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