The Liberals’ condition is a shared failure. But Dutton is the obvious problem

The internal unity that Peter Dutton regards as his big achievement as leader is killing his party. It has caused his MPs to turn further inwards and entrenched the policy laziness that characterised the Morrison government. Something isn’t right with the path the opposition leader is taking.

After almost a year in the post, Dutton comes off as a seasoned, instantly familiar character actor trying to fill a leading man role – a one-speed player who struggles to find a new way to ply his trade. His main goal is to avoid arguments and say what the party’s diminished base wants to hear. That can keep the show steady for a while, but it won’t revive its fortunes.

Peter Dutton is digging deeper in his efforts to appease the Coalition’s  conservative base.

Dionne Gain

The Liberals’ awful condition is not all down to Dutton. This is a shared failure. Most of its parliamentary representatives and frontbenchers, and the leadership group are in lockstep with him. But Dutton is the most obvious problem because it’s in his gift to begin to turn things around. When a party is in trouble, the leader is obliged to acknowledge what’s wrong and encourage others to help him fashion a remedy, not to continue flawed behaviours.

The Liberals’ chief weakness before last year’s election was that it overdosed on unity under Scott Morrison. No one was willing to sound the alarm, even though it was clear by the second half of 2021 that he was leading them over a cliff. The same thing is happening under Dutton.

What courage or genuine leadership is involved in pandering to the party’s narrow and ageing membership and its avatars in the party room by denouncing every idea the government comes up with as the end of the world? After all, this is the least ambitious new Labor government in living memory. Most voters know that. That’s why they voted for it.

Liberals failed to speak up as the party lost its way under Scott Morrison.  The same is happening under Peter Dutton.


Old political polarities have been reversed. It used to be that Labor’s leaders were naturally hemmed in by the ALP’s Byzantine organisation of activist local branches, the caucus, the policy platform argued out publicly and put in place by the national conference, the national executive, the unions, the factions. Conversely, Liberal leaders had an almost unfettered right to dictate the direction of the party’s positions and agenda.

That has now flipped. The Albanese government’s agenda was shaped almost exclusively by the leader, his office, and a small group of senior ministers. Over at the Liberal Party these days, it works the other way, with the tail wagging the dog. Despite all the shop-worn bromides about the party being a broad church, its tiny sprinkling of moderates today chiefly fulfil a decorative function at the federal level, while the leadership reflects the angry reactionary positions of the local branches and their parliamentary representatives. Hence, for example, climate change is still not regarded as a serious thing and the very idea of the Voice is an affront to cherished democratic ideals where, supposedly, every Australian is equal.

What’s startling is that although things are going so badly, there’s so little appetite to do anything about it. Only months after the party’s poorest general election result in almost 80 years, the Liberals this month registered the worst byelection result for an opposition in 100 years, in which Labor campaigned hard on Dutton’s lack of popularity.

The Liberal Party had won Aston successively under Andrew Peacock, John Hewson, John Howard (five times), Tony Abbott (twice), Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison (twice) but lost it at Peter Dutton’s first crack.

At last year’s election, the Coalition’s national primary vote was 35.7 per cent, down from 41.4 in 2019. The latest Resolve poll puts it at 28 per cent to Labor’s 42.

And yet, it’s not just steady as she goes; Dutton has doubled down, coming clean at last on his commitment to the No case on the Voice. He did this with the imprimatur of the vast bulk of his fellow Liberal MPs and their most vigorous supporters in the community and the media.

Bringing the Nationals’ Jacinta Nampijinpa Price into the shadow cabinet and giving her carriage of the No case in the Voice referendum will send the rusted-on supporters into raptures and make her one of the country’s best-known politicians by year’s end.

What’s startling is that although things are going so badly, there’s so little appetite to do anything about it.

Maybe it will mean a win for the No case — the requirement to get a majority vote in four states in a referendum is a big hurdle. But it won’t bring the Liberals any closer to an electoral revival, further deepening the alienation between them and voters under 40.

Probably the best thing that could happen to the Liberals would be for the No case to lose. That could pierce the bubble, causing them to face up to the rolling catastrophe they are creating for themselves.

Frontbencher Dan Tehan last weekend called on Dutton to conduct an urgent policy review. That a senior member of the Liberal team had to go public to nudge his leader towards taking such an obvious step in the wake of a series of shattering defeats offers an eloquent commentary on the party’s mindset.

If Dutton complies with Tehan’s request, it would be the first time the party has produced a comprehensive set of new policy ideas in a long time, possibly since the days of Howard and Peter Costello in the 1990s.

But has he got the inclination to do it? Based on his performance so far, it’s hard to believe he does.

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