Peter Dutton would be gone tomorrow if the Liberal Party had a candidate who could seize the leadership and put their movement back in touch with ordinary Australians.
But the opposition leader will keep his job, for now, because the Liberals need to be rebuilt from their foundations.
The lesson from Aston, a political annihilation not seen in a century, is that changing the leader means nothing if the party does not change.
The weakness in the Liberal Party is structural and profound: the party has lost power across mainland Australia, the membership is low and the branches are mesmerised by conservative culture wars. And Sky News sends out a beam of light every night to lure the branch members even further to the right – like a lighthouse on the wrong rock.
The result is a federal party room that is far more conservative than the Australian community – and made more so by the defeat of a dozen Liberal moderates at the last election. This party room has backed Dutton in opposing every major policy from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Labor since the May election without advancing a single new idea.
Now it pays the price: total defeat in a suburban seat it should have held. The lessons will sink in, but only very slowly. The conservatives have the numbers and will be reluctant to turn on their leader.
Dutton has the worst job in Australian politics, of course, but he is luckier than some. Former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson had Malcolm Turnbull looking over his shoulder, while former Labor leader Bill Shorten had Anthony Albanese in the background. There are no similar contenders ready to take Dutton’s job.
The Liberal deputy leader, Sussan Ley, is yet to prove she can land an attack on Labor. The shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, is probably wiser to bide his time. The trade spokesman, Dan Tehan, is highly regarded but not a retail politician by instinct. The defence spokesman, Andrew Hastie, is a future contender for the next generation.
This leads to a bizarre reality: after being smashed at the byelection, Dutton remains the default choice for the leadership. There is a live question about replacing him before the next election but no talk of an imminent spill. Many like him, respect him and praise the way he works with all sides of the party.
The question for some Liberals, however, is whether Dutton will do anything with his leadership. He has done little so far: no listening tour to engage voters, no rethink on policy to heed the lessons of the election, no inkling of a new idea on climate change, no attempt to win over Chinese voters who recoiled from the warlike rhetoric of the last government.
“I have had one test in my leadership and that is whether we can keep the party together,” he said on Saturday night. Unity is a constant challenge for any major party, but Australians need a more compelling reason to return to the Liberals. Why should they applaud the poverty of Dutton’s agenda?
What is clear, so far, is that Dutton ensures unity by avoiding hard decisions.“My fear is that keeping the party together comes at the cost of fixing the party,” says one senior Liberal. In theory, the Liberal leader could accept the verdict of the election on climate and support deeper cuts to emissions, but this would mean telling the base what it does not want to hear. Dutton is yet to do that on any issue.
(Albanese, by contrast, made decisions the Labor base found hard to accept when he was opposition leader by voting for the stage three tax cuts and dumping plans to scale back franking credits on shares, just to name two examples.)
This is not just about a Victorian backlash. It is a national problem for the Liberals. When the Australian Election Study asked voters last year how they felt about the major political parties, the rating for the Liberals was the lowest since the study began in 1993. On a scale of up to 10 for strong support, the Liberals rated 4.5 – far lower than the 5.3 they scored when they lost power in 2007.
The brand damage can be proven with hard numbers. The Coalition primary vote cascaded from 42 per cent to 41 per cent and 36 per cent over the last three elections – and it has kept falling since last May. The Resolve Political Monitor has put it at around 30 per cent nationwide over the past six months.
Labor has been vindicated, the Liberals eviscerated. Voters took the risk of backing Albanese at the last election and now, crucially, have more confidence in his ability to do the job. All the major opinion polls show this swing to Labor in power.
At its heart, Aston was a contest between two protest votes. The Liberals tried to mobilise voters against Albanese over the cost of living, while Labor wanted to galvanise them against Dutton. “Send a message – the Liberals need to do better than Peter Dutton,” said one of the Labor flyers. It worked. The sheer power of the Labor protest overwhelmed the Coalition complaints.
History is against Dutton, and not just in Aston. Most opposition leaders lose in a spill or at an election. The immediate question is whether Dutton tries to set a new direction for the Liberals or leaves that task for whoever comes next.
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