Always be wary of political soothsayers predicting eras of one-party domination. Blue walls can come tumbling down, as the Democratic Party discovered in 2016 when Donald Trump demolished its supposedly impregnable barrier in the key battleground states of the Rust Belt. A White House “lock”, the term which described the Republicans’ domination of presidential politics from the late ’60s to the early ’90s, can eventually be unpicked.
Australia’s recent electoral history underscores the rashness of sweeping prophecies. Many of us are still young enough to remember the moment in 2007 when Campbell Newman, then mayor of Brisbane, became the most powerful Liberal office holder in the land. Yet seven years later, the Coalition was in power everywhere other than South Australia and the ACT.
Less than a decade on, Labor enjoys a monopoly in government across the entire Australian mainland. The party’s history-defying win in the Aston by-election, the first time a sitting government has won a seat from the opposition in more than a hundred years, has provided lustrous red icing on that continent-sized cake. The fact that the island state of Tasmania provides the Liberals’ only seat of state power makes them look even more like a party in exile.
With all those caveats firmly in place, Anthony Albanese seems to be doing a pretty good job of advancing his project to make Labor the natural party of government. A central reason why is because Peter Dutton is making the Liberals the natural party of opposition.
Things are bleak for the Liberals going forward, which cannot merely be explained by a temporary change in the political weather. This looks more like a more permanent environmental shift. The Liberals face a political climate emergency, terminology which must only add to their pain.
Just read the 2022 Australian Election Study, the most authoritative deep data dive into last year’s federal results. Only about one in four voters under the age of 40 said they voted for the Coalition. As Professor Simon Jackman, one of the study’s authors, observes in the latest edition of the : “The Coalition’s vote share has fallen to parlous levels, not only among younger women and younger professionals, but right across the two youngest generations in the electorate, millennials and gen Z.” As Jackman notes, never before in its 35-year history has the Australian Election Study recorded such low levels of support for either major party among such a large segment of the electorate.
Let’s imagine for a moment that we left it to an artificial intelligence chatbot, such as ChatGPT, to come up with a Liberal leader to reverse this trend. If, within seconds, it threw up the name “Peter Craig Dutton”, human civilisation could breathe a sigh of relief, for the AI algorithms would clearly be faulty.
The former Queensland policeman defies the zeitgeist. At a time when Australians evidently like having a prime minister who they can have on in the background, the opposition leader persists with a brand of politics which is very much in your face. Clearly there is an appetite for a more consensual and constructive approach in Canberra, yet he persists with the politics of phoney polarisation.
An iron-clad rule of politics is to never let your opponents define who you are. But the problem for Dutton is that he did that himself long before becoming opposition leader. He is the arch-conservative who boycotted the apology to the Stolen Generations. The former home affairs minister who spoke of offering a sanctuary to white South African farmers while also claiming Victorians were “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang violence”. It is hard to soften that kind of self-made image.
Much of the recent commentary on the politics of the Voice referendum has made the point that bipartisan support is not necessarily a prerequisite for success, as is traditionally the case, because of the deep unpopularity of Peter Dutton. The result in Aston will amplify that analysis.
Recently, I wrote how Peter Dutton was failing the Sydney Harbour test, for it is hard to see a Liberal Party under his leadership winning back the shoreline-seats lost to the teals and other independents which have long been such solid blue-ribbon assets. As Aston underscored, and teal victories in Kooyong and Goldstein had already made plain, Dutton has a major Melbourne problem, too.
For the Liberals, the teal challenge is twofold. Obviously, it needs to win back voters who defected from the Liberals. But, as the Australian Election Study showed, less than one in five teal voters previously voted for the Coalition. The overwhelming majority of teal voters were tactical Labor and Greens supporters. The presence in key urban electorates of so many tactical teals again points to a prolonged period in opposition for the Liberals, especially if minority governments become a more regular feature of federal politics as the traditional party duopoly fades.
That sage of the Canberra press gallery, Malcolm Farr, once remarked that Scott Morrison’s main contribution to Australian political life was to stop Peter Dutton from becoming prime minister. Presently, and also perhaps permanently, Peter Dutton also seems to be stopping Peter Dutton from ever entering The Lodge.
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