Paul Bongiorno
Dutton hands Coalition to Nationals

Something truly bizarre is happening in the federal Coalition under the leadership of putative Liberal Peter Dutton. With him in charge, the conservative parties have embarked on a cunning plan to abandon metropolitan voters in favour of rural and regional ones.

Dutton has done what would have been unthinkable for his predecessors in the role: he has ceded ground within the Coalition to the Nationals on policy and on personnel. The strident adoption of a boots-and-all campaign against the Voice referendum is the latest manifestation on top of climate scepticism and fossil fuel championship. Dutton is not the Liberal leader in the accustomed understanding, but rather the leader of a new political movement to put the city slickers in their place.

The fast-tracking into shadow cabinet of first-term Country Liberal Party senator from the Northern Territory Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who is a member of the Nationals’ party room in Canberra, is the latest development in the gradual deconstruction of the Liberal-dominated Coalition.

No wonder Nationals leader David Littleproud could hardly contain his glee when he responded to Price’s promotion. He painted it as evidence the Nationals are better at identifying the sort of people who have the life experience to bring something special to Canberra.

Littleproud acknowledged that his senator had displaced a Liberal in defiance of customary rules but said it’s the right thing for the Coalition and the right decision for the nation to have her background “in this place and not ideologues in capital cities who have never stepped outside capital cities who are trying to make decisions for those who live outside of capital cities”.

Price was rejected in 2019 by a majority of the people she now claims to speak for when she ran for the federal seat of Lingiari, which covers the entire NT outside of Darwin. She chose the easier road to parliament via the CLP’s senate ticket.

Ahead of Price’s unsuccessful tilt at Lingiari, Indigenous academic Marcia Langton wrote in The Saturday Paper that unlike Price’s mother, Bess – another controversial politician – “her constituency is … majority white”. Like her mother, however, Price sees Aboriginal culture clinging to “an ancient tradition of violence, especially against women”.

This view is apparently shared by Dutton and was voiced during his visit to Alice Springs last week. Price nodded approvingly when the opposition leader said that child sexual abuse among Aboriginal communities in Alice Springs and the Territory was “accepted as normal practice”. Neither politician provided any evidence of their claims to police, as is required by NT criminal law.

The visit prompted an angry backlash from Arrernte traditional owner and chief executive of the Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, Graeme Smith. He said the senator “does not represent us, she’s not Arrernte”. Smith said that’s why the Arrernte want an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. “We don’t want to be the Voice in Canberra, like Jacinta; we want a Voice in Canberra, and they’re distinctly different.”

Rejection like this from other Indigenous leaders in the Territory is nothing new for Price or her mother, who is now featuring in “No” campaign ads. Langton accuses both of being tools of the “alt-right”. In her 2018 piece for The Saturday Paper, she said Price “is useful to politicians. She legitimises racist views by speaking them against her own people.”

In his reshuffle, Dutton promoted another first-term Aboriginal senator, Kerrynne Liddle from South Australia, to be the shadow minister for Child Protection and the Prevention of Family Violence.

Dutton gave his abhorrence of the Aboriginal family violence he witnessed as a Queensland police officer as his reason for walking out on Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. However, when he was in a position to do something about it in government, there is little evidence he applied himself.

Dutton was in charge of the Australian Federal Police in 2020-21 when statistics his office released last week showed nation-high child abuse in the Northern Territory. The ministerial direction he sent to the AFP during that fiscal year makes no mention at all of remote Indigenous communities, instead prioritising online child exploitation.

Price was on the Alice Springs Town Council and Dutton in federal cabinet when the Coalition ripped $500 million out of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community services and another $80 million from Aboriginal Child and Family Centres.

This record alone exposes the political opportunism of his approach to these same communities now. There is mounting evidence it is backfiring badly for Dutton.

The latest Resolve Political Monitor poll in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and The Guardian’s Essential poll, found majority support for the “Yes” campaign in the referendum across the nation. Resolve found 55 per cent support in Queensland, which is no surprise for Annastacia Palaszczuk’s office. The premier has thrown her weight behind a successful campaign and has found strong on-the-ground support around the state, especially in areas with higher Indigenous populations.

All the published polls this week suggest Dutton has made a mistake in following the Nationals in rejecting the Voice referendum out of hand. The polls’ average lead to Labor has blown out to 14 per cent and Dutton’s approvals have crashed. These results are replicated by Labor’s tracking. One strategist used the word “catastrophic” for Dutton and the opposition.

Albanese’s dubbing of the Coalition as the “Noalition” is resonating, according to this research. The high-profile commitment to the “No” campaign merely puts it up in lights.

In the opinion of some Liberal backbenchers, the reshuffle was another botched opportunity. There was no reset, just a doubling-down on the referendum, which in their opinion condemns Dutton to be speaking about little else in the next six months. So much has he invested in defeating the vote that he can’t afford to give attention to other issues such as cost of living, lest his push loses even the feeble momentum it currently has.

No one agrees more than the former Home Affairs minister, and the shadow minister in the portfolio since the election, Karen Andrews. She was a surprise resignation from the frontbench and, while she says the Voice wasn’t the reason, she is highly critical of Dutton’s focus on it. She says shadow ministers are working on solutions to issues that most concern people in their daily lives. But there is no evidence of this.

Andrews agrees with the proposition that focusing on fringe issues gives you fringe results. She told the ABC’s RN Breakfast she was shocked by the Aston byelection result and doesn’t believe the party has learnt the lessons of the May election rout or Aston.

Jim Reed, Resolve’s pollster, says the Voice imbroglio is symptomatic of the Liberals’ dire situation. It has put on display a party alienated from the very voters it needs to win back in urban Australia. And far from being the united party of which Dutton boasts, the broader Liberal Party is in revolt.

An enduring image of the week was the prime minister in Hobart, flanked by the Liberal Tasmanian premier Jeremy Rockliff and with Liberal backbencher Bridget Archer over his shoulder, as they waved off former Liberal MP Pat Farmer on his 14,000-kilometre national run in support of the Voice.

Farmer told the crowd the Voice was an “absolute no-brainer” for people under 30. He said they can’t even understand why we’re having a referendum on the issue, because “it should just naturally be in place already”.

Rockliff’s immediate predecessor, Peter Gutwein, launched a savage attack on Dutton’s “No” stance in the opposition leader’s favourite newspaper, The Australian. He said the federal Liberals were intent on “keeping the country apart”. He applauded Rockliff’s “sensible approach” and said that opposing the Voice “will be a decision that the federal Liberal Party is going to rue for some time now that Peter Dutton has so openly opposed it”.

Key Labor strategists, however, believe that for the referendum to succeed Albanese has to keep it as a non-partisan issue. It could be fatal if voters see it only in terms of Liberal versus Labor. “Political business as usual could be a killer,” they say.

Watching on from the bunker of the expenditure review committee in Canberra, Treasurer Jim Chalmers is somewhat frustrated with the way the Voice has obliterated coverage of the issues he is grappling with in preparation for the budget.

That should change on the night of Tuesday, May 9. Chalmers intends to take the government’s agenda beyond the last election, but there is little hope the opposition will join him.

The treasurer has already flagged hitting offshore gas producers with a higher resource rent tax, given their windfall profits and diminishing social licence. That should be a much easier task to raise revenue than faced by the previous Labor government.

Energy cost relief for consumers will also be revealed. Chalmers says he is finalising negotiations with the states. Not so certain will be relief for renters or those on meagre unemployment payments.

The important thing, according to one highly placed source, is that the Albanese government is seen to be working on issues that are preoccupying voters, the overwhelming majority of whom are in the cities.

One despondent Liberal fears Dutton’s current strategy will leave these voters to Labor, the Greens or the teals. Albanese and Chalmers would have no problems with that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "Reshuffling the deckchairs".

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