Paul Bongiorno
Apologies on the way to Tudge byelection

We still don’t know when the Aston byelection to replace the controversial former minister Alan Tudge will be held. We do know that Peter Dutton has been thinking of little else since early January, when Tudge informed the opposition leader that he intended to resign at the end of the first parliamentary sittings.

The looming poll is the prism through which all opposition tactics are viewed. For Dutton, the stakes could not be higher. As Liberal leader, he has struggled to make any mark since he assumed the job less than a year ago.

Dutton’s somewhat spectacular apology for walking out on Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 was, if nothing else, a tidy piece of electoral housekeeping.

Dutton has decided to leave any final decision on the Voice referendum until after the byelection. His carefully crafted apology does enough to leave the impression he is more sympathetic to the referendum than his naysaying would suggest, without locking him in to supporting it. He’s talking to Aston for now, with the chance of talking to a different constituency later.

The opposition leader told parliament that he “failed to grasp at the time the symbolic significance to the Stolen Generations of the apology”. He said it was right for Rudd to have delivered it and it was right that its 15th anniversary was recognised in the way it was.

At the time of his apology walkout Dutton said he thought domestic violence among Indigenous families should be dealt with before any apology should be made. Never mind that domestic violence is an epidemic not confined to First Nations people. Besides, the apology was addressing a different wrong: the appalling treatment of Aboriginal families and their children over decades by Commonwealth and state governments. Similarly, the Voice is giving recognition to a people whose existence and rights were violently denied at the outset of white settlement/invasion.

Dutton was a noted absentee at the anniversary event in the Great Hall of Parliament House this week, held the morning of his own belated apology. At the event, Rudd equated his gesture of reconciliation with the Voice. He said that, just as with the apology, the “Aboriginal people themselves wanted it done”.

Dutton’s sensitivity to the different world view of voters in Victoria is well placed as he looks to hold Tudge’s seat. He is a conservative from Queensland and is in the same mould as his predecessors, Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott – both electoral poison in the southern state. Unlike Morrison or indeed himself at the general election, Dutton can’t stay away from the generally progressive state. It is his neck on the line this time.

Aston is an outer suburban seat in Melbourne. In the November Victorian election it proved to be hostile territory for the Liberals. According to RedBridge Group director Kos Samaras, based on the state results federal Labor would win the byelection by 500 votes. At the very least it shows voters within the federal seat have no innate aversion to voting Labor.

Speaker Milton Dick does not want to delay naming the date. He was waiting on Tudge to formally resign. He is of the view that constituents should not be left without a representative any longer than necessary. That said, an argument could be mounted that the often-distracted former member was more noted for his invisibility in the seat than his presence, particularly during the election campaign.

Indeed, there may well be a Tudge overhang factor that could affect the Liberal vote. Then prime minister Morrison stood him down from his cabinet position in December 2021 while an inquiry was held into allegations made against him by a staffer. Rachelle Miller went on national television to say Tudge had emotionally and physically abused her during their consensual affair.

Tudge denied the allegations but Miller’s treatment in his office, and subsequently in Michaelia Cash’s, resulted in a taxpayer-funded payout of $650,000. Miller gave damning evidence at the robo-debt royal commission that Tudge was relentless in trying to shut down criticism of the illegal scheme by releasing private details of whistleblowers, in one instance after one of the victims had suicided.

Still, Anthony Albanese does not believe Aston will be an easy win for Labor. As he reminded his party room on Tuesday, no government has won a seat from their opposition at a byelection since 1920. Precedents, however, are as much to be set as to be followed. They are certainly not an iron law of politics.

Despite the prime minister’s early expectation management, Labor will field a candidate, likely to be Mary Doyle, who ran for the party last year and narrowly missed out. Despite Tudge suffering an 11.6 per cent swing against him, he was saved by preferences from Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and a couple of conservative independents. That left the Liberals with a slim 2.8 per cent margin.

Labor says it will give the byelection a “red-hot go”. RedBridge focus-group research has found a lot of positive sentiment in the electorate for the government. A typical reaction is “I feel like adults are in charge again” or “at least they are not stuffing things up”.

Credibility is everything in politics and Albanese’s performance in office has enhanced his. In all the opinion polls, Labor’s primary vote has improved, as have the prime minister’s approval ratings. The Liberals have gone backwards and Dutton is flatlining in negative territory.

This could well be the crucial difference in what is shaping up as a tight contest, especially as Dutton sees the one big issue going for him is cost of living and rising home loan rates. He is desperate to blame the government. Forty-one per cent of voters in Aston have mortgages – and with a median age of 40 in the electorate, there are plenty of families feeling the pinch. Thankfully for Labor, the same focus groups see the party’s short time in office as a mitigating factor. “They haven’t been there very long” was another regular sentiment.

For the second sitting week running, the Coalition has ended practically every question in parliament with the slogan, “Why do Australian families always pay more under Labor?” This line does not bear a lot of scrutiny. Dutton’s claim, for example, that interest rates are always higher under Labor was quickly dismissed by the treasurer and prime minister when they reminded the opposition leader that rates were higher under the Howard government at the very time Dutton was assistant treasurer.

You have to wonder what the strategy was late last year when the Coalition voted against the domestic gas price cap and the $1.5 billion energy relief package. Albanese made this point in answers and you can bet your bottom dollar it will feature heavily in Labor’s byelection advertising.

Senior ministers are shaking their heads at what they see is an unrenovated return to the most cynical of partisan politics. Albanese says the Coalition only know what “they stand against and not what they stand for”. In the party room, he likened the Liberals and Nationals to vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that drowned out the telecasts at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He said: “They were interesting at first but soon they just became very annoying because it was the same note.” There was plenty more of that one note this week with the flagged “no” to Labor’s key emissions reduction measure as well as its multibillion-dollar manufacturing and housing packages. Albanese told his troops it was “straight out of Tony Abbott’s playbook”.

The Greens are certainly enjoying their place in the sun as the Coalition withdraws from any meaningful engagements. Dutton is clearly gambling on the hope any compromise Labor reaches with the Greens will be so unpopular that, like Abbott, he will be swept back into government on a tide of anger.

There is nothing new on offer here. The panics being rehashed are on energy prices and fear of a new armada of “boat people” – a fear whipped up after the government kept a promise to end the legal purgatory of temporary protection visas for almost 20,000 refugees. The armada is a phantom and Albanese is intent on keeping it that way. He has learnt from the mistakes of the Rudd government. Much to the anger of refugee advocates, boat turnbacks and regional processing remain, and even temporary protection visas are on the books. Despite the jarring doomsday warnings from the opposition on border security, they got no support from one of their erstwhile champions. The Home Affairs secretary, Mike Pezzullo, assured senate estimates that Operation Sovereign Borders had not been weakened.

The Coalition and its allies in the Murdoch press dropped off the issue after a couple of days. Dutton may call on their help closer to the byelection, but, as we saw, the “boat people” scare didn’t work for Morrison last May. There’s no reason to think it will work whenever the poll is held.

In the meantime, Dutton has a bigger headache trying to convince the Victorian Liberals to preselect a high-profile woman as their candidate. Kos Samaras says that, unless they do, they won’t hold the seat. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "You’re out of Tudge, I’m out of time".

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