John Hewson
Dutton’s delusions of grandeur

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton was desperate to claim a “win” in the Fadden byelection. This was evident in a number of ways – most conspicuously, the negativity of his behaviour in the days leading up to the vote, his focus on trying to blame the government for the cost of living and housing crises, and his anti-Voice strategies. He also cut himself into the discussion about Philip Lowe’s replacement as governor of the Reserve Bank, tried to tag the government with the interest-rate increases, and played down the enormity of the Coalition’s role in the robo-debt atrocity.

There was enough obliqueness in the Fadden outcome for him to claim success. Pretty much as expected, he did retain a traditionally safe Liberal seat. It was a sharp contrast to his failure in the Aston byelection, where there was a 6.4 per cent two-party-preferred swing to the government – a once-in-a-century drubbing. The Liberal National Party candidate in Fadden, Cameron Caldwell, did achieve a swing of about 2.8 per cent to his party, which is above average for a seat held by an opposition member, but still less than the average 4 per cent swing against the government in such a seat.

However, Dutton must be disappointed with this result, having reportedly spent about 10 times what the government did on the campaign. It is unclear whether the swing reflected the negativity of the campaign, or simply the fact Stuart Robert was no longer the candidate. There had been a swing to Labor of about 3.5 per cent at the last election when the failings of Robert were emerging.

None of this discouraged Dutton and his team from crowing about the “victory”. Dutton and some of his key media mates still can’t seem to accept that the Coalition actually lost the last election, as suggested by the opposition leader’s comment that “Labor’s economic experiment is failing”, and he called for the prime minister to do more to ease the burden of the cost of living. His deputy, Sussan Ley, hailed the result as “a strong endorsement of Peter Dutton [and] of our team”.

The successful candidate extrapolated further. Caldwell claimed: “We are a party that must return to government in order to restore faith that Australians have in government keeping their promises.” Extraordinary stuff.

Ley subsequently announced another stunt – her commitment to a national tour of Labor seats, with a focus on the cost of living and a view to developing an effective policy response. It’s eerily reminiscent of an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart wins hearts interviewing “everyday folks” for his segment of “Bart’s People”.

It should be clear the position of both Dutton and the shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, on the cost of living reeks of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

After all, they spurred the cost of living crisis and knowingly left it as one of a series of landmines that would challenge the incoming Albanese government. The crisis originated from a series of poor policy judgements and failures, namely holding real wages down and letting profits run while building an avalanche of inflationary forces. These originated in the hundreds of billions of dollars poured into the Australian economy by both fiscal and monetary policies in an attempt to stimulate growth to drive us out of the medically induced restrictions and lockdowns during the Covid pandemic. They blew up the house-building sector and failed to effectively use the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to enforce competition policies. These domestic forces were compounded by global supply-side pressures from the pandemic and from the war in Ukraine.

The other landmines included the impact of sustained neglect of the care sectors, particularly aged and disability care, structural budget deficits stretching as far as the eye could see and the associated national debt rapidly heading towards $1 trillion. These latter factors have combined to seriously constrain the capacity of fiscal policy to ease the cost of living for the most vulnerable and those struggling to get by. Moreover, the former Coalition government also deliberately withheld information about the inevitable systemic increases in power costs to come in the near future.

Morrison’s government revelled in all this, and how clever they had been in planning and planting these landmines, and yet in their campaign for the last federal election they still arrogantly took every opportunity to propagate the myth that they were the “better economic managers”.

Against this background, Dutton and Taylor seem to operate with the belief they can fool most of the people most of the time.

Another disturbing feature of their strategy, as highlighted in the Fadden race, has been to ignore the fact this government’s budgets have provided considerable, targeted cost of living relief, in a non-inflationary way. The Reserve Bank has confirmed this and Dutton and Taylor must have been surprised by the achievement.

Perhaps the worst facet of their strategy has been their assertion that the Albanese government is responsible for the succession of interest-rate increases – 12 so far – when clearly these were at least in part a consequence of Morrison government policies and appointments. Their accusation also directly ignores the independence of the Reserve Bank.

In all this I keep wondering just how low they will go to create this image of the Albanese government as failing to understand the cost of living challenge and failing to deliver adequate relief.

So far the nadir has been the attempt to link the cost of living crisis to the Voice referendum. Surely this is the bottom of the barrel. Dutton’s strategy has been to create mass confusion and doubt about the Voice, its operation and supposed consequences, in the hope of bringing down Albanese and his government, in the tradition of former prime minister Tony Abbott and his then chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

It was a particularly low blow by Dutton to suggest Albanese has neglected the cost of living by being obsessed by the Voice and giving it priority. In a recent radio interview with Albanese, presenter Ben Fordham kicked off with a few minutes on the cost of living crisis and then led into a solid 15 minutes on the Voice, forcing the prime minister to continually defend the “Yes” position. Obviously, this left no time for Albanese to discuss the cost of living. Perhaps the Voice is simply more sensational and lights up the switchboard.

And perhaps it is beyond Dutton to imagine that government does and must work on many fronts simultaneously. Indeed, there is no evidence Albanese has elevated the Voice over the cost of living. Surely Dutton can push this only so far. And he should be careful what he wishes for. If his strategy were to be successful and the Albanese government were to fall over the Voice, he might find himself going into the next campaign on the back foot. He would face the accusation of having missed a very important opportunity to do something right for Indigenous people, and of being deliberately divisive for his perceived short-term political benefit. He may be remembered for squandering the opportunity to give our First Australians proper recognition – that would be a continuing national disgrace.

Overall, while I understand Dutton’s need to claim a victory in Fadden, I hope he doesn’t see this as a victory for negativity. Indeed, as much as he likes to call on Albanese to do more to ease cost of living burdens, he should rise to the occasion himself and be prepared to spell out exactly what he would do. His challenge is to try the politics of hope rather than nope and unveil the details of his own plan. This hopefully could spark a genuine competition of alternative visions for our country, which might result in better government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Dutton’s delusions of grandeur".

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