Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The Peter Dutton schtick

It still hasn’t dawned on the Liberal and National parties why they suffered such a stunning defeat at the May election. Maybe Labor’s slender majority masks the rejection of the Liberals in their heartland seats, which resulted in a near-record number of independents. So far the Liberals seem to have no obvious strategy to win back support.

This is especially true if you accept climate change as a significant contributor to the loss of these seats. That was the elephant in the room when Peter Dutton called in the television cameras to record his pep talk to the depleted Coalition party room this week.

Doing his best Pollyanna impersonation, Dutton assured his troops that Albanese’s team would make such a mess of government that voters would come flocking back to the Coalition at the next election.

His best hope on this front is how the government handles the enormous pressure of events largely out of its control, such as rising interest rates, rents, energy costs, inflation and petrol prices.

No doubt these issues played a big part in voters fleeing the Coalition in the first place, something Dutton blithely ignored. He said: “It is clear to all of us Labor doesn’t know which levers to pull in the economy, and they are going to make a bad situation worse.” Could that “bad situation” be the mess Labor inherited after nine years of Coalition government? And given the huge rush to the independents and Greens, voters clearly thought any situation would be better with the Coalition out of government.

Dutton ploughed on, saying Liberals are superior because “many of us come from small business” with an experience of the economy that “the Labor Party just can’t bring to the table”. The Dutton schtick, borrowing from a 1942 speech by the party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies, is to look after the “forgotten people” in the regions and in commerce. This rather invites the question of how these people could still be forgotten after nearly a decade of Coalition government.

With the cameras gone, the serious business of the day began: discussing the vote on the government’s climate action bill with its 43 per cent emissions reduction target. Dutton had already made his captain’s pick; the opposition would reject it. His shorthand view was that the bill was “a stunt”. One Liberal says Dutton is doing a “fantastic job ignoring what happened at the election”.

Surrounded by many more conservatives than moderates since the election, and the fossil fuel cheer squad in the Nationals, party room sources say there was no real pushback against Dutton’s decision to lock the opposition into its minimalist stand. Some were positively thrilled when the leader announced yet another review into nuclear energy by the shadow minister for Climate Change and Energy, Ted O’Brien. But it is hardly a convincing alibi for their continued, inadequate response to global warming.

O’Brien’s 2019 parliamentary inquiry was largely ignored by Scott Morrison. It heard evidence from nuclear physicist Ziggy Switkowski that nuclear power has become more expensive since his report to the Howard government more than 15 years ago.

Without a price on carbon and billions in government subsidies, it is simply unviable. Renewables are the cheapest clean power source and have none of nuclear’s potentially dangerous downsides.

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen ridiculed the latest nuclear crusade in parliament. He cited a CSIRO report that found nuclear technology “is the most expensive and slowest to employ” energy source.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson is not alone in describing the decision to oppose legislating Labor’s target as “madness”. Zali Steggall, who won the hitherto blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Warringah in 2019 and held it this year, says Dutton appears to be repeating the Liberal Party’s miscalculation about winning back its traditional strongholds.

Steggall’s win in 2019 was the equivalent of the canary in the coalmine. It was a symptom of a fatal disenchantment among urban Liberal voters and it was ignored. Morrison made no real effort to heed their concerns over climate change, counting on Steggall being a one-term wonder, just as independent Kerryn Phelps was in Malcolm Turnbull’s former seat of Wentworth.

Instead, Steggall was joined by five similarly minded independents when a teal wave swept away some of the Liberals’ best parliamentary talent. These were members, such as former treasurer Josh Frydenberg, in seats earmarked for future leaders and with a record of producing them.

A veteran Liberal strategist says it’s hard to estimate the damage to the party, or its ability to quickly recover.

The independents were among the loudest voices supporting the government’s climate bill midweek, led by Steggall. All said more needs to be done and had amendments accepted that stiffened accountability.

Sophie Scamps, who won Mackellar, told parliament “people want concrete action on climate change now”. Those sentiments were echoed by some of Dutton’s frustrated members of parliament who struggled to hold their seats. James Stevens, given the fright of his life in Sturt by a big swing to the Greens, called for the Liberals to take a more ambitious medium-term target to the next election. Dutton gave that undertaking, but it hardly lays a credible foundation for convincing voters that the Liberals understand the increasingly urgent need for action when they won’t support it now.

The opposition consigned themselves to irrelevance on the issue when the Greens, after two intense party room meetings, resolved to support Labor’s climate bill through both houses of parliament.

Greens leader Adam Bandt admitted at the National Press Club that his colleagues weren’t all happy. They had reached a “contested decision” but they would “all unanimously” vote for the government’s amended legislation.

A key to winning this support, other than community pressure, was the government agreeing to an amendment to have federal departments work to implement the legislated target. The opposition saw this as a blow to developing the Beetaloo Basin gas project.

Bandt said the government bill was akin to “throwing a bucket of water on a house fire”, so the Greens would continue to press for a ban on all new gas and coal projects. A pathway to this would be a “climate trigger” for all projects. Chris Bowen said the Greens are welcome to make submissions along those lines to the review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The Greens decision is a big win for Albanese and has many on the government side wondering why Dutton chose to adopt a strategy that makes him look stuck in the losing past. “He’s playing to his base,” was the view of one senior minister. But it’s a question of what part of the base you mean. Many of the traditional Liberals are definitely looking for more than Dutton has put on offer so far.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before any of them face the people again. If a week is a long time in politics, three years is an eternity. But Newspoll confirmed a widely held view that Albanese is off to a much better start than many would have credited. Its first survey since the election found Albanese’s satisfaction rating of 61 per cent is the highest of any incoming prime minister since polling on this measure began in 1985.

The poll was released as parliament went into its second week of sitting and came after the prime minister delivered his landmark speech at the Garma Festival of Traditional Culture in the Northern Territory, where he gave details of the referendum question to enshrine an Indigenous Voice in the constitution. His commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full has won him wide praise and support. The prime minister told caucus it was the “most important speech I will give in my life”. He reiterated the difficulty of delivering on it and said he wants to build as broad a consensus as possible.

But there are conflicting signals coming from Dutton. He went out of his way in his televised party room spiel to praise the “incredible Jacinta Price”. Price is a new Aboriginal senator from the Northern Territory, who is a darling of the hardline conservatives, including Pauline Hanson. She is opposed to the Voice.

Tony Abbott quoted Price approvingly in a strident opinion piece against the referendum proposal, warning that it amounted to the end of our way of government as we know it and claiming it would be racially divisive. The article reads like the beginning of the “No” campaign and has some Liberals worried that Abbott’s hyperbolic negativity would be taken as the party’s position.

Veteran Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, like shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser, says the Voice is a pathway to healing. Last year Broadbent said “once and for all we need to set matters to right honestly, and if we do not, we remain a diminished nation and we cannot truly move forward”.

An Australia Institute poll has found these views are in line with an overwhelming majority of Australians, including 56 per cent of Coalition voters. Reason enough, you would think, for Dutton to get with the national zeitgeist.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "The Dutton schtick".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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