Inside Story

No guts, no glory?

Peter Dutton isn’t the first opposition leader to opt for a big-target strategy. The precedents aren’t encouraging

Peter Brent 24 June 2024 1565 words

Pressure still to come: opposition leader Peter Dutton (right) and shadow climate change minister Ted O’Brien during Question Time in the House of Representatives this morning. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

There’s a rolling assumption among political journos and commentators that whatever is in the news this week, particularly if voters are then polled on the topic, will be vital to the outcome of the next election. One month it’s immigration, the next housing, inflation and even — from some scribblers — the Voice referendum.

So it is with Peter Dutton’s vague sketch last Wednesday of a nuclear power policy — basically a list of proposed reactor sites, narrowing the field from 150 to seven. Will the opposition leader’s gamble pay off? Will Australians join him on this nuclear adventure? Or will it all fall in a heap?

Elections end up being about all sorts of things. And a win doesn’t mean everything the party proposed received majority support. But sometimes a particular issue can reasonably be identified as having made the difference between a win and a loss. Climate change policy, despite what you might have heard, hasn’t so far joined that list.

Dutton’s pitch has been, quite reasonably, compared with two famous opposition escapades: John Hewson’s book-length Fightback! at the 1993 poll and Bill Shorten’s franking credits plan in 2019.

When it was unveiled in November 1991, Fightback! was an absolute banger, producing a steep surge in voting intentions and ratings boosts for the Coalition and its leader. The package as a whole — which included, yes, the dreaded GST, but also goodies such as direct tax cuts and (who could resist?) a big drop in petrol prices — received majority support. It contributed to the demise of Bob Hawke’s prime ministership weeks later, and perhaps tipped Hawke over the edge.

By contrast, Labor leader Bill Shorten’s franking credits plan didn’t provoke a widespread response either way when it was announced in March 2018. Most voters were unfamiliar with the technicalities and although the money it would deliver for the budget was substantial, it didn’t set out to remake the nation.

But the plan did register, quickly and negatively, with the minority of voters who stood to be — or maybe/perhaps/might conceivably be — affected. Within days it was rejigged to exclude pensioners; not a great start. The opposition called it a “retiree tax” and much of the media, including at least a couple of ABC radio personalities, adopted the shorthand.

Over time, it became an amorphous, if background, cause for unease and a reason not to vote Labor. What does the ALP have against old people? As the election approached it was recognised as a bit of a problem for the Labor, but voting intention opinion polls led the party (and everyone else) to believe it wouldn’t be fatal. In the end it (probably) was.

Neither of those earlier blunders, each of them perilously complex, was necessary. Dutton’s 2024 throw of the dice, by contrast, contains defensible elements of hard political logic. One has to do with internal party tensions. Most Coalition MPs seem to have a problem accepting the reality of global warming, let alone the need for Australia to do anything about it. Yet the electorate expects at least something from a major party, even if it’s token (like Tony Abbott’s “Direct Action”). So the nuclear plan placates the party’s right wing while purporting to present a path to net zero.

A big policy such as this also further secures Dutton’s position as leader. He was looking pretty safe anyway, but you never know what the future brings. The Liberal party-room, having been co-opted onto the bandwagon, will find it very difficult to dump either it or him before the 2025 poll.

And contemplate the road not travelled. While it’s almost certain in Hewson’s case, and probable in Shorten’s, that a policy-lite opposition manifesto would have delivered victory, the same can’t be said today. This Labor government is in its first term and — despite some commentator chatter after recent polls — there is no real reason to believe a change of government is likely. If playing safe would probably have kept the Coalition in opposition then a big risk can be justified. The potential upside is a win, the potential downside just a larger loss. The extreme, an electoral walloping, could actually sweep away Dutton himself in Dickson, on a margin of 1.7 per cent; but perhaps, having taken his one shot, he wouldn’t mind that too much.

No guts, no glory.

Another difference between Dutton and Hewson/Shorten is that those earlier policies embodied mainstream technocratic thinking, having been suggested in some form by Treasury and kicked around for years. The former had also been publicly advocated by treasurer Paul Keating. True, the idea of nuclear power has also long been with us, and has been used by Coalition leaders as a piece of left-baiting, but serious advocacy has been restricted to the fringes, and scarcely anyone today claims it would stand up to a cost–benefit analysis.

And yet Australians tend to be fond of “nation building.” Did railways and telegraph poles need a tick from bean-counters in the nineteenth century? Did (or will) the NBN prove economically sound in the end? Might nuclear energy be the next high-speed rail — widely appealing at gut level even though the numbers don’t add up?

Also working for the opposition is the absence of an obviously raw hip-pocket nerve. The plan’s massive and ongoing hit to the federal budget would affect perceptions of economic credibility, but on that measure a Liberal opposition will tend to be given more leeway than a Labor one. (In 2007 Kevin Rudd’s strictly-fibre-to-the-node NBN plan had a price tag a tiny fraction of what ended up being built.)

One little-mentioned aspect of Dutton’s plan — the promise to drop the 2030 carbon target — would also set free up not only gas but potentially also coal. The intrinsic appeal of this outcome would be limited to the fossil-fuel worshipping joint party-room and the wider conservative movement, but an associated “promise” of lower power bills might prove much electorally important.

Working the other way is the wide uptake of and support for renewable energy. Nationals leader David Littleproud found his mouth running off last week about restricting renewables to make nuclear viable. How does such talk go down in the three million households (home at least six million voters) with solar panels?

More generally, while loathing of windmills is an article of faith among conservative culture warriors, it’s not a sentiment shared by the general population. For years Dutton has appeared susceptible to mistaking the obsessions of Sky after Dark for those of the wider community — recall his concern for the plight of White African farmers — and some of this nuclear push seems driven by that. As Monday’s Resolve poll in the Nine papers suggests, Australians overall have warm feelings towards renewables.

Once Dutton provides more detail, the pressure and attention will be on the opposition. Opponents will joyfully look for aspects, big or small, to pick apart. In the meantime, they will helpfully shovel truths and half-truths into the vacuum.

The mere word “nuclear” can quicken the pulse. The purpose of the early release of the sites was to stop hares running on the question of where these things will be located. In theory, that potential scare campaign has shrunk by 143 out of 150, but other Coalition MPs, and importantly people who aspire to join them after the election, will still be discomforted by the repeated question of whether they would welcome a reactor in their own electorate, and clips of them showing that discomfort will be energetically shared.

As the AEC reminded us the other day, we live in an online misinformation age. And, as Bill “death tax” Shorten will tell you, misinformation can be particularly powerful when big plans are released.

We’ve around ten months to go. My best guess is that in the short term the electorate will give Dutton and the Coalition points for boldness but eventually the plan itself will be little-loved and will to some extent damage the opposition leader. Australians are as much in love with the idea of oppositions being courageous as they are susceptible to being made terrified of change. We know which wins out at the ballot box.

But climate change policy won’t be the only, or even the main issue at the next election. The cost of living in the second half of the 2020s will weigh much more heavily on people’s minds. Power bills play a part in that, but so will perceptions of the opposition leader’s judgement and competence.

Right now there’s a lot of desperation around, on both sides, presumably based on the belief that voters’ first impressions stick. But we know from previous events, most spectacularly last year’s Voice referendum, that many millions of electors are quite able to change their minds over a few short months.

Still, no prime minister enjoys experiencing a knock, even temporary, to his government’s standing. Nasty polling can make MPs nervous; see the above reference to R.J.L. Hawke. Recall also that the simmering discomfort over Labor’s franking credits plan didn’t save Malcolm Turnbull in 2018.

It was Kevin Rudd who introduced new rules that shoved a plank into Labor’s revolving leadership door. Anthony Albanese might be thankful for them in the next few months. •