Chris Wallace
Maybe Peter Dutton’s just not that smart

In any other context, the Albanese government could have expected to be wedged between national security and social security this week – with a debate on spending priorities and its willingness to do so much in one area and so little in another. That context, though, would depend on a competent and effective opposition leader. Peter Dutton is neither.

The week began on Saturday with a credible, centre-right journalist suggesting the Dutton-led Coalition was “choosing slow-motion suicide” by continuing to consider Australian women a special interest group rather than mainstream voters.

On Sunday night another stunningly positive opinion poll for Anthony Albanese and his government was published.

Newspoll showed Labor improving its already large lead on a two-party-preferred basis to 56 per cent to the Coalition’s 44 per cent. Albanese’s 54 per cent “better prime minister” rating is nearly double Dutton’s 28 per cent. The prime minister’s net approval rating (+16 per cent) is 35 points ahead of Dutton’s (-19 per cent).

Just as former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke’s four election wins were aided and abetted by a weak opposition leader in Andrew Peacock, and a then unpopular and unrelatable John Howard, so Albanese looks Olympian to voters next to Mr Plod, Peter Dutton.

The outstanding contemporary example is Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews, whose three successive election wins were helped significantly by the human detritus the Victorian Liberal opposition put to voters as the alternative.

Further back, Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, secured a record run for the Coalition in office partly due to the sheer unelectability of Labor opposition leaders H. V. Evatt and Arthur Calwell.

But that was after he won office. Initially, Menzies faced legendary Labor prime minister and treasurer Ben Chifley.

The “forgotten people” motif Menzies used to win the first election in his long run, in 1949, was implicitly addressed to women, scholar Judith Brett has noted.

Moderate centre-right journalist Peter Hartcher cited Brett’s insight in a scarifying critique in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Saturday, noting how far off track the Dutton-led opposition is if the Coalition is to have any chance of winning a federal election.

“If Menzies had the forgotten people, Dutton has to find the Missing People,” Hartcher wrote. “They comprise most of the electorate.”

One of the few serious leadership alternatives to Dutton, Queensland Liberal frontbencher Karen Andrews, has announced her intention to retire from politics.

Andrews isn’t hanging around to watch her party cruise lazily towards the last rites. As she announced her departure to the backbench, to await her parliamentary exit, a sense of resignation briefly flared about the Coalition’s stance on women both inside the party and in the electorate.

“I think that where you have women in a minority, it is always going to be difficult,” Andrews said, before moving on to the usual bromides about expecting the Coalition to preselect many more women.

Andrews has lived the reality. Women comprise only a quarter of the opposition’s federal parliamentary representatives, and less than 40 per cent of its shadow ministers. She famously piped up during the worst of the Morrison government’s internal bullying excesses.

Andrews considered running for the leadership after Morrison lost the 2022 election and, as a mechanical engineer, could well have identified the necessary systemic moves to bring the federal Coalition back from the undead.

But then the boys circled the wagons around Dutton, ensuring he got the leadership this time after being outwitted by Morrison in the 2018 ouster of then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Here lies a big potential clue about Dutton. Unlike Marvel antiheroes – usually evil geniuses – is it possible that Dutton simply isn’t that smart? Equally possible, too, is we are so used to the “evil genius” trope that we can’t see “trying but not that bright” when it is staring us in the face.

Dutton’s attack on business in the Coalition’s house organ, The Australian, provides some support for this thesis. He accused business leaders of “being played for fools by the Labor Party” and of being hypocritical when they “say one thing in private and don’t advocate it publicly”.

“To be frank,” Dutton went on, “some business leaders need to stop craving popularity on social media by signing up to every social cause, even though they may not believe in it.”

There might be some point to a Liberal opposition leader accusing Australian business of being needy, duplicitous liars, but it’s hard to conjure what that point is.

If it is just a ploy to marshal business where he thinks it belongs – lined up behind him and donating copiously to the Coalition – Dutton might want to reflect on his lack of political capital as depicted in Newspoll. It undercuts his impact. Dutton’s situation necessitates different tactics than those that work from the frontbench in government.

To the delight of the Institute of Public Affairs and its fellow travellers, Dutton has managed to semi-derail the Voice debate. But is that an own goal, too?

When journalists are reporting his
rage-farming press conferences in Alice Springs, that’s time and energy they’re not using to report on Labor’s substantive problems: the cost-of-living crisis, the rental crisis, the homelessness crisis, the poverty crisis and so on.

There is real unease among Labor supporters and not a few of its own MPs as budget day approaches on Tuesday week, and with the first anniversary of the government’s election on May 21 coming shortly after. Just when constructive and vigorous critique of government action and inaction could be at a premium, the opposition isn’t providing it.

So who’s filling the vacuum created by the opposition’s limited interests beyond throwing red meat to its dwindling base? It’s a diverse and interesting group.

Wednesday was a kind of high noon in Canberra for raising the rate of social security benefits, with independent ACT senator David Pocock, Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Cassandra Goldie, Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil and others holding a joint press conference pressing for change.

It was also the day former Treasury secretary Ken Henry supported the campaign in a Guardian column, dismissing the usual institutional arguments against raising the rate.

Increasing JobSeeker from $50 a day to $70 a day might cost the budget an additional $6 billion a year, he estimated. “This is a lot of money,” Henry wrote. “But it is also less than 1% of total government payments. It is no more than an adjustment at the margin.”

Adding this $6 billion to government spending would increase the current year budget deficit from 1.5 per cent of GDP to 1.7 per cent, according to Henry. “I have read suggestions that this would add to inflationary pressures in the economy, forcing the Reserve Bank to lift interest rates even higher,” he said. “I doubt that very much.”

No bleeding heart, Henry’s arguments can’t be dismissed by a Labor government that holds his economic policy credentials in high esteem.

Nor can the trenchant, overlapping campaign to restore support taken away by the Gillard government from sole parents once their youngest child turns eight, now spearheaded by Chief Executive Women president Sam Mostyn.

Also held in high esteem in Labor circles, Mostyn will not let go of the issue, on which the government is being pressed hard by Council of Single Mothers and their Children chief executive Terese Edwards, Anti-Poverty Week’s Toni Wren and teal MPs Zoe Daniel, Monique Ryan, Zali Steggall and Kylea Tink too.

There are signs the government may increase the age at which the drastic cut in benefits happens, to when the youngest child turns 12, but it’s not enough given this is when the sensitive transition from primary to high school happens, when parental attention is at a premium.

The government risks looking mean, penny-pinching, even Morrisonesque, if it doesn’t heed core social justice concerns, especially with inflation still running at 7 per cent, according to the latest figures released this week.

Six Labor backbenchers broke ranks to call on their own party to raise the JobSeeker rate. Alicia Payne, Michelle Ananda-Rajah, Kate Thwaites, Louise Miller-Frost, Carina Garland and Mike Freelander – some in caucus, and four of them publicly too – marked themselves out with their courage for speaking up when others did not.

If Ken Henry says raising the rate won’t be inflationary, that should be good enough for Albanese and Treasurer Jim Chalmers to give it the go-ahead.

“People who are unable to secure employment within a short period of time, in a labour market this tight, clearly need special help,” Henry said. “Equally clearly, they are not getting what they need. Denying them such help, while insisting that they should have to survive on $50 a day for more than 12 months, is simply cruel.”

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Richard Marles, who with Albanese released the Defence Strategic Review on Monday, must be looking on bemused at this week’s welfare conversation.

Despite its enormity and incredible importance, the DSR slipped through public discourse with barely a ripple.

The Morrison government’s recently departed Defence minister, Peter Dutton, was subdued.

On the other side of politics, those with real concerns about AUKUS and the wisdom of getting into the nuclear-powered submarine-building business with the Brits were largely unseen and unheard. How lucky can Marles get?

About as lucky as Albanese is with the opposition leader he has been dealt.

Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Maybe Peter Dutton’s just not that smart".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription