The party hard man is seen as a sure vote winner by his supporters. But when even his own seat is not safe after 17 years, how can he win over the nation?
Peter Dutton is not a sure vote winner even on his own home turf. The assumption that he’s a potent adversary of his party’s enemies in Queensland looks very shaky in the light of focus groups of undecided voters held in the last few days in his seat of Dickson.He’s no hero to them. They haven’t forgotten – as Canberra strangely has in the turmoil of the last few days – that Dutton made his reputation imprisoning women and children out in the islands. These voters want the boats stopped but they reckon their MP is heartless, cruel and not very bright.Dickson is not a bleak outer suburb of Brisbane. It’s leafy and only a quarter of an hour from town. It’s mostly middle class. The notion that this is some uniquely Queensland electorate is rubbish. There are electorates like this across Australia. If Dutton can’t hold onto his – and his margin is only about 2% – then how is he, as prime minister, going to hold such electorates across the nation?They’ve had him as their local member for 17 years, but Dutton has no star power in Dickson. That he’s an ex-cop is one fact everyone knows about him. The other is that he’s uncompromising. Undecided voters split there. Some recoil from what they see as sheer stubbornness. Others read Dutton as principled with the guts to stand up to pressure from the Greens and Labor.
The focus groups in Dickson are being conducted for GetUp. The work is not finished but an interesting shift in attitudes to the boats is emerging.
First, these wavering voters are unconvinced that a switch to Labor would see the floodgates open. Second, they’re coming to view offshore detention as unruly, expensive and inhumane.
Why, they ask, should money be spent on lawyers just to get a sick kid from Nauru to hospital in Brisbane? And who is the man who runs that system? Their local member, Peter Dutton.
Having the prime minister as your local member is supposed to thrill electors. But a ReachTEL poll overnight in Dickson revealed half the electorate opposed Dutton unseating Malcolm Turnbull and only a miserable 37.6% backed his lunge for power. All in all, he’s Mr Unlikely.
This is voter analysis Australian-style. It presumes that everyone will turn out to vote. The challenge here isn’t to persuade what Americans call “the base” to leave home to drive to a polling station. Throwing red meat to the base is a necessity of US politics. Not here. First, party loyalty is breaking down in this country. We switch votes when our parties disappoint us. But almost nothing makes Americans break with their party. Nearly 80% of Republicans still support Trump. Walking over to the other side is so damn hard.
In order to excite his base and win voters on the fringe, Trump can put policies in place that appal most Republicans. He knows party support will hold. But that doesn’t work in Australia. That’s why – along with the uncertain appeal of Dutton the man – the talk in Canberra this week of meeting the demands of the base is so suspect.
Connie Feveranti-Wells reckons the base is furious about equal marriage. The base is supposed to demand cheap electricity at whatever cost to the environment. The base is supposed to require hefty cuts to immigration. But that’s not what polls say Australians want.
The nuclear meltdown of the Liberals this week is about more than ultra-conservatives in the ranks flexing their muscles. Clearly, the mass defection from Malcolm Turnbull is evidence of a deep loss of faith in his leadership. But at the same time it has to be read as an audacious gambit by a political faction that knows it is losing traction in the community. Terrible polling figures for policies dear to their hearts does not dissuade but compels them to act. The rule is this: when you face losing control of the country, you musttake control of the party. Otherwise you are done for. And if that wrecks the party? Well, it’s been useful for about 70 years, and out of the wreckage something will come that can be turned to advantage.
The longest running stoush in Australian politics is between the nice and the nasty inside the Liberal party. It’s not, in John Howard’s famous words, a broad church. The party is a perpetual battleground. Fighting the ultras to keep the party electable consumes the energies of the Liberal machine.
The trouble is the small Ls can’t match the mongrel of their conservative opponents. When was the last time one of them threatened what the hardliners seem to threaten every other week under Turnbull: to cross the floor if they don’t get their way? And never underestimate the strange taste ideologues everywhere in politics – not just hardline Christians and coal-lovers in the ranks of the Coalition – have for glorious defeat. So we go down, but we go down defending the base sure in the knowledge – despite all the polls tell us – that we have Australia’s best interests at heart.
The question now is whether we’re saying goodbye to more than a prime minister. It looks like curtains for a party that can’t bring itself in 2018 to represent the country.