Since becoming opposition leader, Peter Dutton has clawed back in the polls by relentlessly attacking the Labor government – now that approach is being tested.
During the first major political battle of the year, over the stage three tax cuts, Peter Dutton’s instincts to fiercely attack the government didn’t seem to work as planned and resulted in the Coalition facing unwanted scrutiny when they eventually backed the changes.
So, what is Peter Dutton’s strategy? Can he marry his instincts for a political fight with electability as a potential prime minister?
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*.
Since becoming opposition leader, Peter Dutton has clawed back in the polls by relentlessly attacking the Labor government. But now, that approach is being tested.
During the first big political battle of the year, over the stage three tax cuts, Peter Dutton’s instincts to fiercely attack the government didn’t seem to work as planned and resulted in the coalition facing unwanted scrutiny when they eventually backed the changes.
So what is Peter Dutton’s strategy going forward? And can he marry his instincts for a political fight with electability as a potential prime minister?
Today, chief political correspondent for *The Saturday Paper* Karen Middleton, on how Peter Dutton plans to win the next election.
It’s Tuesday, February 13.
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Karen, I think it's fair to say Peter Dutton has really been tested by the start of this year. Now, you've been in Canberra during his rise through the ranks of the Liberal Party. Can you tell me a bit about what kind of politician Peter Dutton is and how he handles being under pressure?
Well Ange, I think he's got a reputation as being quite aggressive, playing hard in the political arena. And, he's come across as, sort of, tough and a hard man in politics, really. He came into politics with an interesting career behind him. He owned a company that ran a lot of childcare centres, and before that he was a police officer in Queensland. And when he took on the home affairs portfolio, in particular, he harked back to that time as a Queensland police officer quite a lot. So he was seen very much as a law and order guy, I think. And that's been part of the difficulty for him in trying to transition to be the leader and be seen in a broader context and going, all the way back, remember, to 2018, when he brought on the challenge to Malcolm Turnbull's leadership.
##Audio excerpt – Peter Dutton:
“Earlier this morning I called the Prime Minister to advise him that it was my judgement that the majority of the party room no longer supported his leadership. As such I asked him to convene a meeting of the Liberal Party, at which I would challenge for the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party. Thank you very much.”
##Audio excerpt – Virginia Trioli:
“Peter Dutton leaving one of the briefest press conferences we’ve ever seen. Barry Cassidy is chuckling to himself… Barry?”
##Audio excerpt – Barry Cassidy:
“I just thought he might have had a little more to say than that…”
One of the things Peter Dutton ended up being slightly ridiculed for was that, when he finally decided to bring on that challenge, and step back from his ministerial role, and he came to a press conference and announced to journalists, oh well, you'll see a different side, I'll get to smile more.
##Audio excerpt – Peter Dutton:
“So nice to be in front of the camera’s where I can smile, and maybe show a different side, not here talking to you about border protection matters.”
People sort of said, well, why don't you do that already? If you have to announce that you're going to do it, that doesn't seem great. And he makes the point that it was a persona that had been created because of the portfolio he'd been in and because of the nature of the work. Also, with immigration and asylum seekers, he'd taken a very tough position and he was trying to reposition himself. Now, how easy that is to do in the public mind is an open question. But I think we have, since he became leader, seen a slightly broader version of Peter Dutton, but still a pretty tough, ruthless politician.
##Audio excerpt – Peter Dutton:
“What's this faux outrage about issuing visas to terrorists? Kicking out bikies? Why is he kicking out bikies? Because why is he cancelling visas of paedophiles and the rest of it? They can carry on all they like, Mr. Speaker. I'll tell you this much, all I will do is double down.”
What we have seen with Peter Dutton, since he became leader, is he is prepared to exploit political opportunities where they come and cop the criticism, if it comes, for that, because he sees that as the best way to combat Labor in government.
I sat down with him last week to talk to him about the start of the year…
##Audio excerpt – Karen Middleton:
“Is it dangerous ground for you to be prosecuting a character argument and how do you manage, or how do you deal with that kind of attack?”
##Audio excerpt – Peter Dutton:
"Well I think the haters will hate, and there's nothing I can do about that. I think what a lot of the critics don’t realise is that for me, it’s fuel in the tank to double down on my determination…”
…about the tax changes and about how he sees things, and how he manages some of the criticisms that come at him about that past history as Home Affairs minister and leading up to being opposition leader.
And now the politics of this week have become a bit more complicated for Peter Dutton, as he faces scrutiny over the findings of a review into the handling of regional processing of Asylum Seekers. And the review has found that the Department of Home Affairs didn’t adequately consider the integrity risks when it was awarding huge contracts around offshore detention centres, and these companies that received these contracts were allegedly linked to criminal activity. So yet again, it's not an entirely smooth start to the year for Peter Dutton. He's wanted to stay on the front foot and talk about the issues he identifies, and he finds himself having to discuss other things that look back instead of forward.
Yeah, right. And how is Peter Dutton grappling with pressure right now, especially in light of, as you say, these criticisms he's been facing recently over his style of politics?
Well, I think he's the kind of politician that doesn't take a backward step. He's not an apologist, he keeps moving forward. So he's certainly not conceding anything in terms of that style of politics. The Prime Minister calls him a negative leader, suggests, as we've heard repeatedly, that the coalition is now the no-alition, that it just says no and opposes everything. It was interesting to me that Peter Dutton suggested that he was actually trying to be bipartisan and supportive of the government on a range of policy areas, and he feels the government isn't listening to him. I guess the truth lies somewhere in the middle there, but he doesn't seem to me to be proposing to change the style of leadership that we see, but I think he wants people to understand a different side of him. You know, he's conscious of how people view him. And, you know, he, in fact, directly addressed and brought up one of the criticisms of him, which is the sort of unflattering assessment of how he looks because he's got a bald head. You know, we see it all over social media, the descriptions of Peter Dutton that are pretty unflattering and maybe unkind. He said, oh, you know, I might have a rough head, but I'd rather be criticised for that than be criticised over my integrity. And so that is the way he's going to approach his contest with Anthony Albanese. And of course, in politics, you don't always control what happens when and how it unfolds, and that's certainly the case in opposition. And what we've seen over the last few days, with video emerging of Barnaby Joyce sprawled on his back in an entertainment district of Canberra late at night and accused of being inebriated. And that just shows that sometimes something will come at you from left field that requires a different kind of management.
And Karen, I suppose what’s happening in Canberra is one thing, but how voters actually perceive Peter Dutton is the most important test. What does he say about that, how Australians view him as a leader when he’s, you know, meeting them out in electorates?
Well, he says people say to him time and time again, gee, you're nothing like I thought you were. You're a different sort of person. You know, when I talk to you in person, you're not the guy we see on the screen. And he maintains that the more people he can get out and meet and shake hands with, the more that will take hold and help him in his quest to unseat the Labor government. Now, you know, he's pointing to his polling numbers, he's saying, look, they've improved over the time I've been leader. That's because this is happening that people are getting to see a different side to me. You know, it's a lot to stake on getting around to make all of the millions of Australian voters. But he maintains that he thinks that he can win the next election and that he is electable.
He wants people to not only vote out a bad government, which is usually what happens in an election when there is a change of government, but also to support a good alternative government. So he's seeking to tear down Labor, and also to build up his side as a genuine policy alternative.
Coming up after the break, how Peter Dutton plans on winning the next election.
Karen, we're talking about Peter Dutton and his goal of getting the coalition back in government. Despite doing damage to the Albanese government last year, it would still be an uphill battle to win the next election. So, how is Peter Dutton looking to win over the public this year?
Well, he's unafraid of a contest on character, which for a lot of people, given the issues he's had around his public persona, is maybe surprising. But he's really going after the Prime Minister directly, and the Labor government more broadly, and arguing that it is not to be trusted. That you’ve put your trust in them as voters, they are letting you down. And he will be looking for opportunities to reinforce that argument and in that course, he is making the argument. And he believes there is a resonance in it, about this broken promise on tax. Now, the opinion polls so far suggest it's not biting, but he thinks it could still do that. And some of his colleagues do, too. I spoke to a range of them about how they feel things are going, and it was interesting. One of them, Bridget Archer, who's traditionally a bit of a dissenter in coalition ranks, and maybe more commonly known for speaking out against the leadership's decisions and direction, being a more moderate liberal and Peter Dutton being a much more conservative member of the right. She actually believes what Dutton's arguing, which is that it's a pretty cynical exercise to break a promise on the government side. She said she thinks even if people are happy to forgive the promise breaking itself because they're getting more money, what might resonate more is the manner in which it was executed. The fact there was no warning, the Prime Minister was saying, right up until the time that the decision was announced, that he wasn't changing the tax cuts, and all of his colleagues were saying similarly. And she said that that looks, sort of, duplicitous, and maybe that's the sort of thing that might resonate in the public mind. Now let's see how successful they will be at that. They've struggled a bit in the past week or so to get there, but they sound like they will continue on that course.
And, Peter Dutton's goal of winning the election is a really challenging one. It's notoriously difficult to win government from the opposition, especially after just one term. But of course it has been done before. What lessons would Peter Dutton be looking to from previous oppositions who have tried to do this?
Well, you know, I'm sure they're all looking back at both recent history and further back history, where opposition leaders have come out with a complicated plan, particularly a plan for taxation, and had it all torn apart going into an election. It happened to Bill Shorten. In 2019, he proposed, as Labor leader, scrapping negative gearing concessions for property investors, changing the arrangements for franking credits for shareholders. And none of that went very well for him. So there's that lesson. But going back even further, in the 1990s, we saw John Hewson, as Liberal opposition leader, come out with a huge package of proposed tax changes called Fight Back, famously.
##Audio excerpt – John Hewson:
“The worst recession in 60 years, this country desperately needs leadership. And it needs people who are prepared to stand up and say, look, this needs to be done. And Mr. Keating said in 1985 that we needed this sort of tax reform, and it was fundamental to the future of Australia. If it was important in ‘85 and unemployment was 8%, it's even more important today when unemployment is 11+%, going towards 12%. The urgency is much greater today than it was ‘85. And that's the essence of the argument.”
It did put the frighteners on the government initially. In fact just a month after it came out, the Labor government replaced Bob Hawke with Paul Keating. So, it did create an atmosphere of, well, what's the government going to do? And I suppose the opposition is seeking to do that now. But ultimately, it also enabled a new prime minister, in that case, to dissect it and demolish it.
##Audio excerpt – John Hewson:
“I ask the Prime Minister, if you are so confident about your view of Fight Back, why won't you call an early election?”
##Audio excerpt – Paul Keating:
“The answer is, mate, mate, I want to do you slowly. I want to do you slowly. There’s gotta be a bit of sport in this for all of us.”
And that's the risk for an opposition. If you want to come out with enough policy that makes you look creative, forward thinking and like a reforming alternative government, but not so much that the incumbents can use all the benefits and instruments of office to rip it apart, steal the good ideas, and create negatives in the public mind. So that's a challenge that he will face in trying to recast a tax policy ahead of the next election. And now, given what the government has done, tax will be, potentially, a much bigger issue as part of that election campaign than I think we thought it would be. So that is a really big challenge for the opposition.
And Karen, it seemed like last year Peter Dutton made a lot of headway by going very hard on the attack, which seems to be what he does quite well, particularly over The Voice. But this tax debate has maybe shown the limits of that kind of approach, and I guess the need for him to turn back to this idea that he's a more reasonable and likeable person. What challenges lie ahead for him in marrying those two approaches?
Well, I guess as a leader, and particularly an opposition leader, you have to think about two things. You have to think about the hard mathematics of winning an election, and where, in terms of seats, that can be done, and then within those seats, what the demographics are and what you need to say to appeal to enough voters in those demographics to swing that seat. That is a pretty hard realpolitik thing. But you also want to be talking to the whole country, because you want them to get to know you, to have confidence in you, because if they do start to lose confidence in a government, they will look to the other side and particularly the leader, to make sure that they are credible enough to be installed in place of the incumbent. So, he's got two jobs to do, and sometimes they're in conflict. Because in trying to win those seats, he will be narrowcasting to certain voters and needing to be, on some issues, the hard man, to have the tough position, because that will appeal to certain people, particularly on issues that affect them directly, which may differ from seat to seat. But then he doesn't want to be putting off other people with that.
So this is the great challenge.
He's trying to do both things at once, he's having mixed success. He may have more than a year before the next election, but we may see an election before the end of the year, if the Prime Minister thinks he's got to a sweet spot with the economy and politically where he can win it, he would certainly call an early election, despite all the protestations.
So we're in for a bit of a seesaw of a year, I think, politically speaking, and we'll see where we land when that election finally gets called, sometime between now and about the middle of 2025.
Karen, thanks so much for speaking with me today.
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Also in the news today…
Foreign Minister Penny Wong has expressed deep concern at reports of Israel’s intent to pursue a ground offensive on Rafah, saying Israel must exercise special care in relation to civilians in Rafah who had been displaced from the north of Gaza.
The statement came yesterday, after dozens of Palestinians were killed in the first Israeli airstrikes on the region.
The Greens are threatening to block the passage of the government’s “help-to-buy” housing scheme in the senate, unless Labor winds back tax breaks on investment properties.
The Greens say they’ll only support Labor’s housing bill - which would see the government loaning applicants part of the purchase price of a home - if Labor promises to pare back negative gearing and capital gains discounts.
I’m Ange McCormack, this is *7am*. We’ll be back again tomorrow.
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