‘We need to stop dog whistling’: MPs call for Dutton to return Liberal Party to centre

Frustrated Liberal MPs are urging Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to move to the political centre and refresh his shadow cabinet after the Liberal Party’s stunning byelection loss in Aston.

Dutton is not expected to face an imminent threat to his leadership following the upset result, the first time in a century a sitting government has won a seat from the opposition in a byelection. Local woman Mary Doyle won the seat in Melbourne’s outer east with a 6.4 per cent swing to Labor.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton speaks on Saturday night following Aston candidate Roshena Campbell’s loss.

Penny Stephens

Dutton accepted responsibility for the result on Sunday and vowed to rebuild the party to make it competitive in the next federal election, but declined to outline how he would change his approach to improve the party’s performance.

Several MPs laid the blame for the Aston defeat on poor campaigning and candidate selection, while others expressed alarm that the Coalition’s cost-of-living message was failing to resonate even in outer-suburban “mortgage belt” seats like Aston where repeated interest rate rises have hit voters hard.

The Liberal Party last week suspended Victorian state MP Moira Deeming for attending an anti-transgender rights protest in Melbourne that was crashed by neo-Nazis, overshadowing its cost-of-living message in Aston.

Outspoken Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer, one of the leading Liberal moderates in parliament, said: “I think the party needs to stop ideological dog whistling and return to centrist Liberal values.

Liberal MP Bridget Archer said the party is at a crossroads.

Alex Ellinghausen

“You’ve got ideological culture warriors who would rather we lose than make space for a diversity of views and that’s a problem … the party is at a crossroads and needs to decide – it’s a choice between ideology and electability.”

She said there was a strong case for fresh blood on the opposition frontbench because “we have to have a commitment to change and renewal”.

Several Liberal MPs privately backed Archer and called for Dutton to think carefully about which bills the party opposes and where it can negotiate with the government.

Liberal frontbencher Dan Tehan said the Aston result “shows we’ve got a lot of hard policy work to do”.

“Part of opposition is about resetting to make sure that we’ve got the policies we know will appeal to the Australian people,” Tehan said.

“We’ve started that, but we’ve got to redouble our efforts because we could be in an election at the end of next year.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese celebrated Labor’s victory alongside Doyle on Sunday morning, accusing Dutton of being too negative.

Declaring that Australians have “conflict fatigue”, he told reporters: “After 10 years of being part of the problem, Peter Dutton now fails to be a part of the solution … he’s become an observer of Australian politics rather than a participant.”

Speaking on the ABC’s, Dutton pointed to longstanding difficulties in the nation’s second most populous state, saying: “Our brand has suffered terribly in Victoria.”

Acknowledging the Liberal Party had “many lessons” to learn from the Aston defeat, Dutton said: “Ours is now an opportunity to rebuild. We will do that over the course of the next couple of years and we will go into the next election in a position that will see us win it.”

Former prime minister Scott Morrison, who could retire from parliament within months, alluded to the Aston defeat in an Instagram post uploaded from a Cronulla Sharks rugby league game on Sunday afternoon.

“Problems elsewhere but Sharks lead by 6,” he said.

The Coalition’s path back to power is imperilled by its especially dismal standing in Melbourne, where it now holds just two urban seats.

Keith Wolahan holds one of those seats – Menzies – and said it was vital the Liberal Party start winning back seats in Melbourne given it was set to become the nation’s most populous city.

“My party has to earn the trust of Melbourne again and to do that we have to listen and demonstrate that their [voters] concerns are our concern and that we are a party of character and competence,” he said.

“I think it’s deeper than a particular policy, we have to fix the relationship and the onus is on us to do that.”

Fellow Victorian Liberal MP Jason Wood said the byelection loss was a “perfect storm” and the party had “played perfectly into Labor’s hands”.

While praising defeated Liberal candidate Roshena Campbell as “outstanding”, Wood said there were concerns within the local branches about parachuting her into the seat given she lived in Brunswick, 45 kilometres away from Aston.

He said he was one of a number of MPs who also raised concerns about the campaign strategy and the refusal to rebut Labor’s attacks on Dutton.

“You can’t have a campaign strategy where we don’t back our leader, it’s insanity,” he said.

One MP, speaking privately, said: “I don’t think the answer is to change the leader.”

Dutton is widely praised within the party for keeping it united following last year’s crushing election defeat.

Another Liberal MP who did not want to be named said the party’s woes extended beyond Victoria.

“The depth of brand damage has not been understood by the people sitting around the shadow cabinet table,” the MP said.

“The community has seen no change in the 10 months since the election and they’ve marked us down. It’s embarrassing out there, people don’t want to be associated with us. We still look and sound like the Morrison government.”

The Coalition opposed Labor’s safeguard mechanism bill, leaving the Greens in a kingmaker position last week to negotiate amendments to the government’s signature climate change policy.

One Dutton loyalist in the shadow cabinet blamed the loss on the Albanese government’s post-election honeymoon, the retirement of former member Alan Tudge, infighting in the Victorian branch and Campbell being parachuted into the seat.

“Accumulate all that up and it adds up to a loss. But we would have held the seat if we had had a local candidate,” the MP said.

“It’s a sobering result. It’s bad for confidence, morale, momentum and for Dutton, but we have to be clear-eyed, not emotional.”

Another Dutton loyalist MP said that anyone “rushing to say this is the end of Dutton is wrong”.

“The Victorian division is completely dysfunctional. They dropped an inner-city Liberal into an outer-suburban seat,” the MP said.

( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

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