No time to lose for Albanese, but there’s a clear and present danger for Dutton

Amid all the factors that might affect a government’s ability to govern well, a broad and simple one sits at the top: the luck of governing at the right time. But what is that “right time”?

Take the defamation case of Ben Roberts-Smith. At first glance the case has little to do with the government’s agenda. But then probably the most important item on that agenda this year is the Indigenous Voice referendum. Now consider that one of the dominant strains of commentary since the finding against Roberts-Smith has been about the challenge to Australian mythology. And consider, too, that the Voice debate also sits squarely in that domain, forcing a grappling with myths about Australia’s origins, its character, our Constitution.

Men for the times? Well, one of them is.

Alex Ellinghausen

How would you expect the former to influence the latter? Should a rethink of one of Australia’s founding myths (Anzac) encourage us in rethinking other founding myths (terra nullius, the idea we have always been egalitarian)? Or will the loss of one myth in fact achieve the opposite, pushing non-Indigenous Australians to embrace ever more firmly whatever myths they think remain?

Then there is the scandal surrounding PwC, which has quickly turned into an examination of the ineffective ways in which public servants interact with each other and with agencies. This should be a gift to the government. In Anthony Albanese’s first speech to parliament, delivered almost 30 years ago, he deplored the Howard government’s plans to cut 20,000 public service jobs, said the public sector must be “proactive” and that the “ideologically driven view that the public sector is a huge monolith which exhausts economic and human resources must be challenged”.

As I outlined recently in a long piece about Albanese’s first year as prime minister, one of the concerns often voiced by those in government is about the state of the public service. After 10 years of being distrusted and asked to do little, departments are said to rarely offer strategic advice or ideas. So when Albanese delivers what has become something of a stump speech to public servants – as he did recently to staff at the high commission in London – and stresses the importance of coming up with new ideas and putting them forward, he is drawing both on long-standing beliefs and contemporary concerns.

Probably the snowballing of the PwC affair comes at the right time for the government, with public frustration at the use of consultants (which Finance Minister Katy Gallagher emphasised at budget time) giving Albanese the chance to do something that otherwise might be politically difficult. That is, spend a significant amount of money rebuilding the public service. This in turn should help shift public service culture back towards Albanese’s preferred “proactive” model.

But then consider the additional scrutiny the public service suddenly finds itself under. This is mostly a good thing and obviously shouldn’t be curtailed. Still, it is worth being aware of the impact all this attention is likely to have on an already overly cautious public service, especially when the robo-debt royal commission findings and next month’s commencement of the National Anti-Corruption Commission are thrown into the mix.

Finally, there is the case of the Liberal Party. One of the fascinating elements of recent discussion is the way in which the contest between moderates and conservatives is being recast as between urban Liberals and regional Liberals. As journalist Aaron Patrick has outlined, this was initially an argument put by conservatives: as inner-city seats were lost, the argument went, the Liberals could pick up seats further out that leaned right. Recently, though, moderates (including George Brandis in these pages) have begun to make the same contrast but with an important tweak to the argument: given the party is failing to pick up extra conservative seats, they say, it must win the cities, which means taking more progressive positions. The strength of this line for moderates is recasting an ideological debate they were never going to win as a more narrow question of electoral maths.

Peter Dutton’s position should place him well to navigate this strategic question. He is from Queensland, a largely regional state, but from a city. There is no doubting his conservatism, which means he has the credibility with his backers to try to shift the party. That is the advantage of his history.

The disadvantage is that, in tough times, there is always the danger of falling back on what you know and pleasing those who already support you. Sure enough, we have seen a recent retreat into an approach one suspects Dutton thinks is geared towards regional voters and the MPs who represent them. In May last year, he said policies would be “aimed at the forgotten Australians, in the suburbs, across regional Australia”. As journalist James Robertson pointed out, this April, just after the loss of the suburban seat of Aston, that formulation shifted. Now, the suburbs had been dropped: “Too much of the government’s effort is really concentrated on capital cities, and we are the party of regional and rural Australia.”

More recently, we had Dutton’s assertion the Voice would “re-racialise” Australia. His political timing was curious. Dutton had recently made his pointed budget comments about migration. Then came Stan Grant’s statement. It was at that point that Dutton chose to make race questions an explicit part of his pitch around the Voice. Perhaps he thought he was capitalising on a topic already being debated. Instead, the Nationals distanced themselves from him, Liberal MPs reportedly expressed unhappiness, and Labor forcefully pushed back. The times, it seemed, were not what Dutton thought they were.

The truth is there is not really such a thing as leading at the right time: the best politicians make use of what the times give them. So far, it seems Dutton has chosen to refuse the opportunity laid at his feet. Perhaps in time he will be proved right; or perhaps he will change his approach.

If not, well, a weak Dutton probably suits Albanese fine. But put it differently: an inflammatory opposition leader against a government relying on national unity heading into difficult economic times and a debate on Indigenous issues. That might not be good for Dutton, but it might not be good for Albanese either.

Sean Kelly is a regular columnist and a former adviser to Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

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