Inside Story

PM under pressure

A panicky leader will only make matters worse for the government

Peter Brent 4 December 2023 821 words

Wrong terrain? Prime minister Anthony Albanese during question time last Thursday. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

The polls have turned and the commentariat has embraced them. Newspoll’s latest result, 50–50, has sent opposition leader Peter Dutton to top of the pops: he is now a crafty politician and the Coalition’s previously all-but-insurmountable demographic hurdles have disappeared — at least at the federal level.

The gold in Anthony Albanese’s Midas touch, meanwhile, has turned to something of a slightly different colour, and the flat, syllable-mangling delivery that was once the secret to his connection with unpretentious middle Australia is now dreary and uninspiring. It gets worse: apparently he’s “weak,” a “follower, not a leader” and a “beta male” (ouch), according to focus group quotes plastered over News Corp’s Sunday tabloids.

Last week I did a very challenging thing: I watched question time, or at least large chunks of it, over a couple of days. I wanted to see how both major parties are behaving within this new Labor-is-acutely-mortal paradigm.

I expected cost of living to be on high rotation among opposition speakers. After all, it’s the biggest and most intractable problem the government faces. To my surprise Dutton instead asked question after question of the prime minister about his supposed failure to “stand up to China,” as he and Scott Morrison dedicated so much time to doing, with little evident damage other than to themselves, in the dying days of the last government.

Other questions focused on the repercussions of the High Court decision that set free a refugee child sex offender and all the other “hardened criminals” now in the community. Exactly the sort of thing you’d expect this former home affairs minister to jump on, and something that is at least more likely to hit a short-term nerve in voterland.

And in the government too: if there’s one issue that produces a sinking feeling in the collective Labor gut it’s the whole asylum seeker, refugee and immigration tangle. Unlike with the questions about China, the government’s response — and not just under parliamentary privilege — was completely over the top: hysterical and desperate, with some frontbenchers even bellowing about Dutton being soft on paedophiles.

It’s one thing to chip away at the opposition leader’s self-proclaimed toughness on the issue by revealing home truths about incompetence on his watch. Digging up letters to the current immigration minister from WA Liberal senator Dean Smith requesting the release of a convicted child sex offender certainly highlights the opposition’s disingenuousness.

But “protecting paedophiles” sounds grubby and deranged. It tells voters the government is scared. And who would believe it of any opposition leader in living memory?

Unlike during the Rudd era, Albanese’s Labor has managed to keep the boats stopped. Assuming it remains that way up to the election, “boat people” won’t be an issue. The extent of this general topic’s impact on past election results is generally overstated anyway. And why play on Dutton’s preferred terrain?

There’s a strand of Labor that yearns for the pre-Whitlam days, before Kim Beazley Senior’s famous “dregs of the middle class” hijacked the party of workers and White Australia. We saw it when Julia Gillard replaced Rudd and immediately started channelling John Howard. Some thought it awfully clever politics, at least at first, but it ended up reinforcing Tony Abbott and Morrison’s messaging and normalising their gross behaviour.

I still believe Dutton is unlikely to be opposition leader at the next election, assuming it’s in 2025. Just today Nine papers carry a piece about his deputy’s plan to win back teal seats. Sussan Ley is everything Dutton is not, and the obvious replacement should one be needed.

As pathetic as it sounds, it’s likely both sides are desperate to do well in the final Newspoll of the year so they can relax over the summer. But a truly clever prime minister would try to keep Dutton in place, because when he goes the government will sorely miss him.

Which is, I suppose, what he’s doing, if inadvertently. But there are better ways than lowering your own stature to raise your opponent’s.

Perhaps that’s being too simplistic, though. Troops need to be kept happy. Bill Shorten still has a lean and hungry look, and while the chances of a comeback are not even minuscule, we have seen many times how unsuccessful challengers (on the Coalition’s side in 2018, for instance) can make an incumbent’s position unsustainable.

It was only in June this year (though it feels a lot longer ago) that I finished a piece with these words:

We are only one year in, which as past governments have shown tells us nothing about how things will pan out. And we’ve not seen how Albanese copes under pressure, in difficult times. They will come, sooner or later.

Those times have arrived. And the answer to how he’s coping? Not well. •