The Politics    Monday, May 23, 2022

Soul-searching

By Rachel Withers

Image of former defence minister Peter Dutton, March 31, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Former defence minister Peter Dutton, March 31, 2022. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Is the Coalition stupid enough to take this loss as a sign that it should lurch further to the right?

Anthony Albanese has been sworn in as prime minister and has jetted off to Japan, following a brief presser noteworthy for its inclusion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. The new PM was sworn in alongside a skeleton interim ministry, with Albanese still to confirm his full front bench following two key losses on Saturday. But it’s the leadership of the Liberal Party that is driving much speculation today, as the decimated party continues its recriminations. With Josh Frydenberg having lost his seat, the contentious Peter Dutton is now the frontrunner for Liberal leader (Dan Tehan and Angus Taylor are also in the mix), while former home affairs minister Karen Andrews and trend-bucking Tasmanian MP Bridget Archer are being probed over their interest in becoming deputy. (Why are women only ever considered for 2IC?) The party is now having a public spat over whether it needs to move left or right, a ludicrous question given it was just whacked at the ballot box for its rightward lurch. Following a loss driven by the party’s inaction on climate, women’s issues and integrity, would the Liberals really be stupid enough to become more right-wing, and to put Peter “water lapping at your door” Dutton at the helm?

Arguments over what the Liberal Party should do next began before the election was even called, with both left and right immediately claiming vindication for their cause. Appearing on the ABC’s election coverage and then again on Insiders, leading moderate Simon Birmingham called for a return to the centre, following it up with an op-ed this morning noting that this was where the party had lost support. But the Murdoch media and other hard-right figures went the other way, rabidly arguing that the Liberal Party had drifted too far left and needed to go right, to forget the blue-ribbon elite and appeal to “conservative values” in the outer suburbs. (Never mind that this was exactly what Scott Morrison tried to do in this election, without success.)

Various moderates have today emerged to push back against this galaxy-brain argument, including Moncrieff MP Angie Bell, Sturt MP James Stevens, NSW state treasurer Matt Kean and even key Morrison-defender Jane Hume. The outspoken Archer told RN Breakfast she would be resisting any rightward push, and seemed open to running for deputy mostly as a means to stop that. Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, meanwhile, has denied that his unpopularity is to blame for the Liberal’s huge urban losses (former leader Michael McCormack disagrees), boasting about the Nats holding all their seats. “The Nationals don’t have a problem”, Joyce told reporters, choosing to ignore the fact that many independents and Greens ran successful campaigns arguing that a vote for Liberal moderates was “a vote for Barnaby Joyce”. (Joyce is reportedly facing leadership recriminations of his own.)

There’s no doubt that the moderates have logic on their side but they certainly don’t have the numbers, with their ranks having been massively diminished by Saturday’s result. They seem to have accepted this when it comes to the leadership, however, and are now publicly and privately insisting that Dutton actually isn’t so bad, with strong echoes of his wife’s infamous “he is not a monster” comment. “Peter’s public perception is not always an accurate reflection of Peter’s true stance,” Birmingham told Insiders, no doubt hoping that another option could still eventuate. Meanwhile, anonymous MPs have pointed to Dutton’s support of welfare and the fact he is less religious than Morrison to argue he could appeal to the middle-ground. One MP who had been in contact with Dutton told Nine that he planned to take a sensible approach to policy, while another claimed that “Labor would write him off as a crazy right-winger at their peril,” insisting he was a pragmatist.

On the contrary, the Liberal Party would be crazy to think that it can rewrite Dutton’s record now. As a very freely speaking WA Premier Mark McGowan noted today, Dutton is seen as extremely conservative – an “extremist” – who is deeply unpopular in the parts of the country that the Coalition needs to win back. (As a rather diplomatic Monique Ryan, the teal independent who unseated Frydenberg, told the ABC this morning, Dutton would obviously not play well in Kooyong.) It could be that he becomes an interim leader – a crash test dummy, as journalist Samantha Maiden put it. But the idea put forward by Sky News host Rowan Dean – that there will be a Dutton-led government by 2025 (which would include the party’s clearly repudiated anti-trans Warringah candidate) – is utterly fanciful. The Liberals could choose, if they want, to listen to News Corp, to double down and go full Donald Trump. But if Saturday’s result is anything to go by, they would be among the only ones still listening to the Murdoch press.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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