Opinion: Could Opposition Leader Peter Dutton vacate the middle entirely?

Photo by Aditya Joshi on Unsplash
Monday 18 September 2023

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

The lesson for advanced democracies from the last few decades is this: institutionalise inequality and you institutionalise disintegration.

Allow private capital to determine matters that were once shaped by elected representatives, and the very purpose of government gets hazy.

This haziness is the populists' nirvana.

In 2016, simmering umbrage in Britain and America suddenly gazumped nearly a hundred years of passive agreement to the idea that governments of both centre-left and centre-right should be trusted to frame the available policy options, and choose in the broad interest.

On both sides of the Atlantic, blue collar voters, incensed by decades of privatisation, job-offshoring, stagnant real wages, and a growing sense of economic and cultural powerlessness, raged against the machine.

In Britain, they pushed back at a cosmopolitan consensus among economists, business and financial institutions, mainstream media, universities, arts and cultural figures, and professional organisations around continued EU membership. Just under 52 per cent (17.4 million voters) opted to "take back control".

For these disgruntled citizens, the centre-ground architecture of commerce and politics, established as the very locus of problem-solving, had become the problem.

In the general election three years later, solid Labour constituencies in England's battered industrial north, flipped to the hero of Brexit, Boris Johnson. Labour's "red wall" was breached.

In America, a similar wreck-the-joint indignation fuelled the norm-trashing Trump phenomenon, with disastrous results. In both countries, political success was built not on unity, but on division. Not on building up, but tearing down.

The emphatic rejection of the inherently unifying Voice proposal seems headed for the same angry and self-destructive cliff. Its demise is as much a repudiation of the so-called "elites" promoting it as the product of any substantive critique.

Peter Dutton, a still new Liberal leader who is both cannier and more intellectually organised than Tony Abbott ever was, has been central to this.

Invariably underestimated, Dutton is shaping up as the most daring and radical Liberal leadership figure this country has seen.

The signs had been there if we cared to look, but only now is a pattern discernible.

At his first press conference, the freshly minted leader pointedly declined to prioritise regaining inner-city seats lost to progressive independents in 2022.

Surely a parliamentary majority (76 seats minimum) was impossible without the lost jewels of Kooyong, Wentworth, Curtin, Mackellar, Warringah, North Sydney, Goldstein and Boothby?

Dutton didn't mention them. "Our policies will be squarely aimed at the forgotten Australians, in the suburbs, across regional Australia..." Dutton said in his opening remarks. Suburbs and regions. Not cities.

But it is in the Coalition's full-throated, anything-goes case against the Voice, however, that we see the real "tell".

On top of his indifference to those ex-Liberal seats, and his inflexibility on emissions and affirmative action, Dutton's intemperate anti-Voice rhetoric suggests he never really intended to chart a path through the sensible centre.

Rather, it seems he had imbibed the teachings of Trump and the odious Nigel Farage to create something new, belligerent, and wholly unambiguous.

While Bob Hawke's "Bringing Australia Together" was pitch-perfect for a country suffering conflict fatigue in 1983, Dutton's defiant case against the Voice is on-song with its opposite, agreement fatigue.

Outsiders - many of them traditional Labor supporters - inveigled into everything from globalisation and transgender rights, to welcomes to country and the dictates of the pandemic.

Will it work?

In her typically well-informed column on Thursday, journalist Niki Savva reported on a recent dinner in Canberra where some 45 Liberal moderates warned that Dutton would reap no reward if the Voice is defeated.

"By the end of the night," Savva wrote, "Dutton was figuratively laid out on the lazy Susan, picked over by increasingly frustrated Liberal MPs, former MPs and prospective candidates. The consensus ... was that Dutton would never become prime minister."

They may prove true, but then, nobody knows. Howard was unelectable in the 1980s and unstoppable in the 1990s. Abbott was scoffed at as too negative before winning in 2013 by 90 seats to Labor's 55.

What Dutton says tells half the story, and what he omits hints at the rest. For instance, he doesn't talk about the Teal seats. Courting these voters necessitates progressive policy concessions in areas like gender and climate, as well as health, education, asylum-seekers and, of course, Indigenous reconciliation. Presumably he plans to leave these former Liberal heartlands to the bitter contests between Labor, Greens, and Teals.

Rather than independent Wentworth, then, he will go directly after Labor's suburban and regional assets - think Gilmore (NSW), Lyons (Tas), Lingiari (NT) and Bennelong (NSW) all of which are under 1 per cent margins, and fractionally bigger margins in Labor seats like Robertson, and Werriwa (NSW) Swan and Hasluck (WA).

But throw in also the more socially conservative outer-urban and industrial/regional seats on bigger margins - Paterson, Parramatta, Hunter, Shortland, Dobell, Corangamite, and Macquarie.

I doubt it is lost on Dutton that NSW registered the lowest enthusiasm for marriage equality of all the states and territories in 2017.

Indeed, the top five electorates nationally voting against the same-sex marriage were not Coalition seats but ultra-safe Labor constituencies in greater Sydney - Blaxland, Watson, McMahon, Fowler, and Werriwa.

These multicultural working class areas experience crumbling and overloaded infrastructure, inferior services coverage, housing stress and casualised services-based employment. Grievances here can be easily fanned.

Dutton might just be the first genuine candidate for prime minister whose central plan is to vacate the middle-ground entirely, surrender the inner cities and tailor a whole new bifurcated electorate in which anger and geography are used to challenge elites and break socially conservative Labor voters away outside the capitals.

Other leaders have fanned divisions, sometimes over pretty big and fundamental issues like immigration. But stoking division as an end in itself?

It is a whole different type of politics for a whole different kind of Australia.

The wrecking campaign against the Voice offers a glimpse but it might be just the start.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  19 September 2023/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications