How Dutton and the Liberals lost the voters of Aston

Excuses, excuses. Victoria is, as Peter Dutton said on Saturday night after his Aston catastrophe had been laid bare, a “tough market” for the Liberals. The party’s Victorian organisation is a long-running mess. The Albanese government is still in its honeymoon phase. Labor went with negative campaigning, going after Liberal candidate Roshena Campbell over a past position on childcare and emphasising Dutton’s anti-China rhetoric to Aston’s sizeable Chinese community.

That’s the official response to the loss, and it’s true enough as far as it goes.

From left: Labor’s Mary Doyle, defeated Liberal candidate Roshena Campbell and Liberal leader Peter Dutton in Aston.

Penny Stephens

But if the party satisfies itself with that as the full explanation for what happened, it’s heading for an even more intense world of pain.

For the Liberals, Aston is not just your average seat. It was the last remnant of the Liberals’ glory days in outer-eastern Melbourne, a Labor marginal they won first in the days of Bob Hawke and made safe under four Liberal prime ministers. It’s a mixed suburban area of working-class and middle-class, younger homeowners and retirees, commuters, light industry, small businesses and distribution centres, tradies, nurses, teachers, increasingly ethnically diverse.

While other seats such as Deakin next door fell for Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard, Aston stayed true. At last year’s federal election, the Liberal heartland seat of Higgins was swayed by Anthony Albanese’s entreaties. But not Aston.

However, now, following months of negativity and delusional behaviour from the Liberals, it’s gone.

The numbers tell the story. The Labor primary vote on Saturday was 41 per cent – 8 percentage points higher than at the 2022 election. The Liberal vote was down 4 per cent. The Greens vote was also down. Since Scott Morrison’s 2019 “miracle” election win, when Alan Tudge was the Liberal member, the Liberal primary vote has fallen 15 per cent and Labor’s vote has gone up 11 per cent.

Why would that be? Let’s acknowledge that Campbell, who is the type of person the Liberals need to promote as a candidate, still managed to attract close to 40 per cent of the vote. She is an accomplished professional with experience of running for public office at the municipal level, a mother of young children, from an Indian background. On the ground, there were mutterings about the fact she lives in an inner-northern suburb while Labor’s Mary Doyle, a veteran eastern suburbanite, hails from just outside the electorate. But the Liberals’ troubles ran deep well before Campbell was preselected.

About that transfer of votes from Liberal to Labor – how might it have come about? Allow me to speculate. You’re someone who’s voted Liberal in Aston for a while. The leadership chaos that engulfed Labor in the Rudd-Gillard days put you off the ALP. Tony Abbott seemed a bit out there, but he was politically effective. You were OK with backing him in 2013, although he ran off the rails early on, going back on some promises, and when Malcolm Turnbull knocked him off in 2015, it was a relief. You voted Liberal at the 2016 election.

Two years later, climate change was still a big issue. Turnbull got swamped by it, which seemed to happen to most prime ministers, and Scott Morrison, who you’d heard of as treasurer but not paid too much attention to, stepped in and stopped Peter Dutton taking over.

It’s not good that the leaders keep changing but at least Morrison seems like a normal, suburban bloke. You get behind him at the 2019 election. After that, Tudge loses his bearings. There’s a scandal. Is he still education minister? Hard to say. The government seems to have lost its way: for every good decision it makes on the pandemic, it makes a poor one. You’re not quite sure what its purpose is. Your Liberal-voting neighbours say they won’t vote for Morrison and Tudge again at the 2022 election, but you do, without much conviction. Maybe it’s time the other crowd had a go. You’ve been ambivalent in the past but climate change and wages do need more attention.

Dutton takes over. You find out that Morrison was up to all sorts of bizarre stuff, giving himself ministries. Hardly any of his colleagues seem to be outraged.

Meanwhile, Dutton and his frontbench and party room embark on opposing everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, they’re against it. Problems have been mounting for a while. The world is changing. You might not like some of it, but you can see it, why can’t the Liberals?

Dutton keeps blaming Albanese for the rising cost of living. You know it’s more complex than that; he’s hardly been in office long enough to either cause it or fix it. This is just a continuation of the lack of direction under Morrison. On Saturday, disillusioned, and unhappy that you’ve had to vote for the third time inside 11 months because Tudge decided to head off into the sunset, you put a “1” next to Doyle’s name on the ballot paper. At the least the Labor Party under the unthreatening Albanese seems to have some ideas and goals. That’s how you stop voting Liberal.

Dutton has made great play since Saturday night that he has kept the Liberals united since the election. To what end? The voters of Aston provided the answer to that.

Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.

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