Opinion: Dutton lends his 'voice' to divisive election strategy

Photo by ha11ok on Pixabay
Monday 17 June 2024

By Mark Kenny

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

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British hopeful Sir Keir Starmer have more in common than a penchant for the small target strategy.

Both are orthodox politicians which is to say, social unifiers who seek to communicate across the middle of the electorate. Both also face opponents who seem intent on losing.

Albanese's small target had informed Labor's super-quick embrace of the Morrison government's 2021 AUKUS pivot to nuclear submarines. Ditto the Labor leader's commitment to honour Morrison's stage 3 tax cuts, despite inequities. If it was a bad promise to make it would have been an even worse one to keep - which is why, in the end, he didn't.

For Starmer three weeks from polling day, exposing himself to minimum vulnerability means not mentioning Brexit while foreswearing future taxes that will surely be needed to rebuild crumbling infrastructure and rescue the NHS, aged care, prisons and schools.

Like Albanese's stage 3 pledge, Starmer's "triple lock" promise on annual pension increases, lowering energy costs and nuclear submarines, makes more sense politically than it has to fiscally.

His official "manifesto" released last week was titled Change but contained no initiatives not already announced.

Said Sky UK's Beth Rigby at the Manchester launch: "Rishi Sunak threw the kitchen sink at his manifesto, you won't even take the safety catch off yours."

Bristling in response, Starmer said: "I'm running as a candidate to be prime minister, not a candidate to run the circus."

Since pulling the trigger in driving rain last month, the forementioned Sunak has helmed a re-election campaign adept only at steering into potholes.

Invited to play heir to the Conservatives' Churchillian tradition at the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Sunak fled the international stage early to rejoin the election trail, turning any advantage of incumbency into a steaming negative.

Starmer couldn't believe his luck. Neither could Nigel Farage, whose populist Reform hopes to scallop sizeable chunks out of the Tories' white-right flank.

Farage said Sunak was "not a patriotic leader" and did not understand "our culture". Ugly.

In Australia, Albanese must also be wondering what he did right in a former life to be gifted with the belligerent oppositionism of Peter Dutton and the unlikely Swiss Guard of "Teal" independents holding ex-Liberal seats.

Peter Dutton is making things easy for Anthony Albanese.

Having already tied himself to a perverse anything-but-renewables nuclear power plants policy (still not detailed) Dutton has now walked away from Australia's 43 per cent 2030 commitment and will not even name interim targets before the election.

With this "captain's call", it is fair to say Dutton is not a "small target" guy. Nor an instinctive unifier. Rather, his aim is to cleave the electorate along much the same lines he successfully drew in the Voice referendum, putting EV-driving educated professionals on one side, and the great mass of SUV-driving suburban and regional households on the other.

"I'm not going to destroy the economy and send families bankrupt in the process of decarbonising our economy," he said in Sydney.

But while division was a winning tactic in the simple binary of a complex referendum, demonising a large section of the population has rarely worked in national elections.

Of the three big failings of the last Coalition government - climate negligence, political secrecy and malfeasance, and the discriminatory treatment of women - it was probably the Coalition's denialism on climate policy that had the broadest electoral reach.

Together, these negatives were enough to turf out the Morrison government even as Labor's "small target" failed to generate much enthusiasm - it secured less than one-third of the primary vote.

So novel was the outcome that longstanding orthodoxies blinded some to the seismic nature of what had just occurred. Blue-ribbon Liberal redoubts reliably sending leaders to Canberra for generations (three Liberal PMs, two Liberal treasurers, and two foreign ministers) fell unceremoniously to centrist independent women who had campaigned loudly for climate action.

Greens broke through also. In all, a crossbench of 16 took its place in the House of Representatives. And it may yet swell further.

Labor's narrow majority was only half of the story. Arithmetically, Dutton's pathway back to a Coalition majority (from 55 seats currently to 76) had suddenly become supremely difficult.

To attempt it without assuaging the disaffections of traditional Liberal voters in the cities is brave.

To do so while actively taunting those ex-Liberal voters by re-energising the climate wars, is simply insulting.

Yet this is what Dutton has now locked his side into, and without consulting his party room.

The implications for Australia of this shift are colossal. A mainstream Liberal Party derived from the privileged mercantile classes of Victoria and NSW has, under Dutton's concussive leadership, shifted its base and surrendered its sensibilities to populist Queensland - a state where the party is not even separated from the Nationals.

It was the Nationals, remember, who decided in November of 2022 to scupper the Voice, effectively compelling the Liberals to follow. And it is the Nationals now, via ex-leader Barnaby Joyce, calling for the complete withdrawal from net-zero by 2050.

Under Dutton's aggressive right-wing leadership, the Liberal Party is becoming the Nationals.

As a response to its historic rout of 2022, this is beyond perverse.

Is it risky? You bet. If it fails, it won't just be Dutton who is finished, but the Liberal Party, too.

Mark Kenny is the Director of the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  18 June 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications