Inside Story

Peter Dutton’s no-payoff gamble

Neither result in the Voice referendum will benefit the opposition leader

Peter Brent 18 April 2023 1321 words

Path of least resistance: opposition leader Peter Dutton speaks to the media last Tuesday after the Liberal party room resolved to oppose the Voice referendum. Darren England/AAP Image

Would Peter Dutton’s chances of becoming prime minister have been enhanced if the Liberal Party had supported the Voice referendum’s Yes case? Arguably. But just contemplating that scenario should be enough to grasp its impossibility: the party room would never have agreed. If Dutton (or any other hypothetical Liberal leader) had staked his leadership on it, his bluff would’ve been called.

It’s one thing for a prime minister with authority, such as Malcolm Fraser in 1977 or Harold Holt a decade earlier, to hold referendums and campaign in unison with the Labor opposition; it’s quite another for a Liberal opposition leader to support a Labor initiative. Some form of federal opposition naysaying was always a fait accompli (even if Dutton and shadow minister Julian Leeser didn’t realise it until early this year), though the form it took, of binding shadow cabinet, was at the severe end of the spectrum. Total freedom à la Republic 1999 would surely have made life easier for everyone, including the leadership.

Why did Dutton choose this path? The answer must be the Aston by-election, when those several hours of counting on April fool’s night gradually turned into a wrecking ball aimed at the Liberal leader’s already modest authority.

Now, it is my firm belief that by-election results don’t actually tell us much about anything — certainly not the next general election result.

(When I chatted with The Tally Room’s Ben Raue a couple of days after the vote, he made the excellent point that even if by-elections did portend the next general election result in a particular electorate — which they certainly don’t because who will govern isn’t up for grabs — seat swings themselves vary wildly at elections. In 2022, for example, the national 3.6 point shift to Labor translated on the ground to everything from 14.2 to Labor in Pearce, Western Australia, to 7.2 to the Liberals in Calwell, Victoria. What would a 7.2 per cent swing to the Liberals at a Calwell by-election in, say, 2021, have told us about the 2022 general election? Nothing.)

But by-elections enjoy divine status within the political class, and Dutton, suddenly insecure, did what such leaders often do: he embraced the party’s true believers, the self-proclaimed “base.” It’s the opposite of what rational analysis would suggest, which is to try to elevate one’s standing in the general community, but it is the path of least resistance.

In this case the “base” is the party’s right wing, for which the current party room isn’t actually a bad proxy. (According to some reports, Dutton piled extra humiliation on the phone-box-full of remaining “moderates” by excluding from his public announcement an agreed-on legislated Voice.)

The reaction has been condemnation in some quarters and exuberance in others. For the latter — in opinion pages and, one imagines, on Sky after Dark — the leader is finally standing for something. No guts, no glory.

And so the referendum is cast as Dutton’s big gamble, with a big payoff coming if the No case prevails. But politics doesn’t really work that way.

It might be true that a Yes victory would destroy him. But it’s not the case that the opposite would mean salvation. People of a certain age might recall Liberal leader John Howard celebrating in September 1988 after successfully opposing a set of four Labor-initiated referendums that recorded the biggest loss in history. Eight months later he was out of a job. Opposition leaders’ fates ultimately depend on their public standing, largely reflected in opinion polling, and there is no reason to believe a No win would endear Dutton to the electorate.

Would it damage prime minister Anthony Albanese, which in a zero-sum game might be an equally positive outcome for the Coalition? It would affect medium-term perceptions of the prime minister’s political nous and prowess, which would influence media coverage and probably shift the opinion polls a little. But it’s all rather transitory. The caravan moves on. In terms of the next election, and in the long run that’s what matters for Albanese, it will mean little.

Internal Labor skulduggery would be an outside risk, but Rudd’s Rules put an institutional plank under Labor prime ministers these days.

When a leader prioritises singing to the choir it is a symptom of leadership decline, and usually also ends up being a cause. That makes it difficult to see Peter Dutton lasting until 2025. Perhaps his best chance of contesting the next election as leader is if Albanese is foolish enough to, as some contemplate, call an early one off the back of a successful referendum.

Hot off the presses — in for a penny, in for a pound — he’s appointed the combative Jacinta Nampijinpa Price to replace Liberal Julian Leeser in the shadow Indigenous Australians portfolio. While Leeser’s other portfolio, attorney-general, has gone to Liberal Michaelia Cash, this represents an improvement in the Nationals’ front bench representation. Nats, whoever they are, don’t get a vote in the Liberal leadership.

And what of the referendum itself? The Yes case is lumbered with the reality that Albanese is not a details man. During a constitutional referendum the attorney-general is normally the go-to minister for curly questions; on this occasion it’s Indigenous Australians minister Linda Burney, who is no lawyer. Both Albanese and Burney have made misstatements requiring backtracking, and are likely to make more.

The nitpicking, the “gotchas,” are only getting started. “If you don’t know, vote No” is the standard theme against any political change, even if it’s not always an official slogan. Mounting the case for change is challenging, even in government.

I’ve generally been pessimistic about the Voice’s chances, but am slightly less so after Aston. Referendums can be a chance for some voters to deliver a kicking to a government, so the apparent absence of such an anti-Labor dynamic in Aston can’t be ignored.

Nor can the incompetence of the No campaign. The proposal to hold another referendum to recognise immigrants as well as Indigenous Australians is a doozy, creating a target where none was needed. It also eliminates what has historically been a key substructure of No cases: that this whole exercise is a waste of money by a self-indulgent government. Warren Mundine himself was running the price-tag line only days before his second-referendum brainwave.

The public face of Recognise a Better Way is also very last century; did I actually hear former Nationals leader John Anderson recently intoning about “intelligent Aborigines” in a radio interview?

Every state premier and territory chief minister has announced in favour of Yes. The fact that Tasmania, whose vote has made the difference at three of the fivedouble majority” referendum failures, has a sympathetic Liberal government bodes well in the event of a close outcome. Ditto the fact that the high-profile Liberal member for Bass, Bridget Archer, will be campaigning Yes. (Is this combination of universal second-tier support and a lack of federal bipartisanship a first? Probably.)

The federal opposition leader doesn’t enjoy wide appeal. The campaigning on Alice Springs crime, like John Howard’s 2007 Northern Territory intervention, is at its heart designed to kindle fear of Aborigines “out of control.” It has a limited constituency, and voter cynicism about such tactics abounds.

One day Mundine will be interrogated about his “recognise immigrants” plan. (Like, what constitutes an immigrant?) Other prominent figures on the No side, Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott, are niche products. (Of the No campaigners, John Howard is probably the only one the Yes camp would love to have onside.) Meanwhile the opinion polls continue to show majority support in every state. (Even the recent Newspoll, once you eliminate undecideds.)

But there’s still six months to go. And it’s a Labor government referendum held in the teeth of federal opposition. Historically, these are very, very difficult obstacles to overcome. •