Dutton submerged like a Virginia class sub as periscope turns to Aston

NSW election 2023

Despite the shrill, self-serving critiques from those who have helped drive the Liberals out of office everywhere on the mainland, the Perrottet government did not lose last Saturday’s election because it had veered too far left and was not right-wing enough for their version of Australia today.

Perrottet’s government was neither overwhelmed by an assault from One Nation on the right nor drowned by a teal wave from the left, largely because it presented as a sensible centre-right party which did not cringe in fear from dealing with climate change or the Voice and did not become embroiled in vicious culture wars over issues like transgender which find favour with neo-Nazis.

Perrottet’s government lost the election because of factional infighting, not because it had veered too far left.Credit:Dionne Gain

It lost because of factional infighting and because of the long-running soap opera starring then Nationals leader John Barilaro which killed off a female-friendly budget. NSW Liberals are now talking about dissolving the Coalition in opposition – a course they believe their federal colleagues should also consider.

It lost because it had been in office for 12 years and wanted another four; because a slew of retiring veterans left their seats ripe for the plucking; because the party failed to preselect decent candidates in good time for vital seats; because of the tensions between the premier’s office and campaign headquarters and because of the damage inflicted on the very name Liberal by Scott Morrison.

Senior Liberals also believe the failure to define their opponent allowed voters to see Chris Minns as a credible alternative, a decent guy with a safe pair of hands – a perception no doubt reinforced by the performance of Anthony Albanese and his government.

The very civility which was such a hallmark of the NSW campaign, which brought great credit to the two leaders – particularly Perrottet’s concession speech which was the essence of grace – might have contributed to his defeat.

The very civility evident throughout the campaign may have contributed to Perrottet’s loss.Credit:James Brickwood

Although Perrottet grumbled occasionally that he needed an attack dog, his office was said to be reluctant to use Treasurer Matt Kean – instrumental in neutralising the teals which helped avert a landslide defeat – because they feared he would offend the right, so Minns remained largely unchallenged.

Minns made a point of bipartisanship at the outset on the pandemic, and even if he had been tempted to go negative, Labor’s research would have mirrored the Liberals’ private polling which showed that particularly among women, Perrottet did not rate well. Minns did not have to labour the point.

Centralising the campaign in Perrottet’s office where Yaron Finkelstein – Scott Morrison’s former principal political adviser – reigned, was another source of friction. Officials claimed they were kept in the dark on policy announcements or electorate engagements. They complained they would not be told until 11pm the night before what was happening the next day, or they would read about it in the morning media.

It became farcical after Finkelstein instructed campaign headquarters to order some blue baseball caps with the slogan “West is Best” for Perrottet to wear to a Daily Telegraph event. When the caps arrived, Perrottet smartly refused to wear one, figuring people living in the northern, southern and eastern suburbs would take offence.

The demise of what was at heart a good government has heightened anxiety among Liberals about Saturday’s Aston byelection in Victoria, where the party has been consumed for two weeks over Moira Deeming’s anti-trans rally which attracted neo-Nazi sympathisers, reminding voters – as if they needed it – of the party’s dysfunction.

Federal and state Liberals had trouble confronting a simple proposition. If you are promoting a cause that neo-Nazis support, there is something profoundly wrong with your cause or the way you are prosecuting it. And if your continued advocacy gives succour to such extremists, you should not be in parliament. You can say whatever you like, wherever you like, but not from a privileged platform provided by a political party posing as fit to govern.

Peter Dutton, clearly laying the groundwork to lay blame at the feet of the Victorians for what Liberals now fear could be a once-in-a-century defeat in a byelection, should not have waited days to condemn the demonstration. He should have done it before the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus taunted him in parliament. In the run-up to the NSW election and now Aston, Dutton has done a credible impersonation of a Virginia class submarine.

There are ways for politicians to counter unpopularity. Staying submerged is not one of them.

Not only has he been unable or unwilling to begin the essential task of redefining himself since assuming leadership, he has disappeared for days on end. Last week he avoided media outside parliament, except to respond to Albanese on the Voice. Last Friday he missed his regular spot on Nine’s Today. On Monday, he did not ask a single question in parliament.

There are ways for politicians to counter unpopularity. Staying submerged is not one of them.

Unlike in NSW, armed with research devastating for Dutton, federal Labor has loaded torpedoes into its attack ads in Aston. Helpfully translated into Chinese, they recall his record as health minister, describe him as the leftovers of the Morrison regime and urge voters to tell the Liberals to do better than Dutton.

With voters still stubbornly refusing to blame or punish Albanese for economic woes, the Liberals highlight infrastructure cuts and the quality of their candidate Roshena Campbell, however they are not promising to restore the cuts and Campbell is from Brunswick not Boronia. Libs glumly report that on the same day as Deeming’s rally, 18 Labor MPs were doorknocking in Aston.

Aston will show if the Liberals hit rock bottom last May when their margin was slashed to 2.8 per cent. Senior Liberals don’t believe they have. While a win is a win is a win, the vote has to at least match 2022 to provide proof of life for the Liberals. Days out there was little confidence that would happen and no certainty at all of victory.

A Labor win risks an outbreak of arrogance but also hope that it would force federal Liberals to change course, especially on the Voice. Good luck with that.

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