Dutton’s Liberal Party
Shortly after Barack Obama’s second inauguration in early 2013, then Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal delivered a speech suggesting that unless the Republican party recalibrated its message and approach, the party would remain all but unelectable. Republicans, he said, should stop looking backwards, compete for every vote and – famously – ‘stop being the stupid party’.
It’s a speech partially remembered for its brutal honesty, but more noted in retrospect because instead the Republican party chose to do the precise opposite. Less than 2 ½ years later, Republicans chose Donald Trump as their presidential nominee. The stupid party was here to stay.
Had Trump lost in 2016, Republicans might have finally heeded Jindal’s message and tacked towards the centre. But Trump won, albeit under extraordinary circumstances, and he has taken the Republican party further right than at any other time in modern American history. With many Republicans now openly scornful of democracy itself, it is no longer hyperbolic to suggest that should Trump or some Trump-esque figure win in 2024, America will become a dictatorship and the country fall into a form of civil war.
Here in Australia another deposed right-wing organisation, the Liberal party, is emerging from the devastating Federal election battered and bruised by the visceral rejection of Scott Morrison and his pugilistic, bombastic politics. There have been widespread calls for the party to return to its traditional centre-right roots, in the hope of attracting more voters at the next election in three years.
For a number of reasons, I believe that this is unlikely to happen.
First, Josh Frydenberg losing his seat means that Peter Dutton is by some distance the most prominent and well-placed Liberal to take leadership of the party. Dutton is a hugely divisive, menacing presence, and already the de facto leader of the party’s right-wing – it’s inconceivable to think that a man of his political instincts would move the Liberals towards the centre.
Second is that there are very few people left to stop him. 2022’s election has added further impetus to a purge of centrists that had already removed prominent alternatives like Julie Bishop, and has accelerated with the loss of (so called) ‘moderates’ like Dave Sharma, Tim Wilson and Ken Wyatt. Although not one of the seats that changed hands in this election was taken by someone further right than the incumbent, some conservatives are suggesting that the Liberals loss was because Morrison and his coalition were, incredibly, too far to the left.
Third, and I believe most importantly, is the simple mathematics. Labor has taken office with just 32% of the vote, around 350,000 less primary votes than the LNP Coalition. Although these numbers are reflective of the 17% of (presumably) potential Labor voters who chose the Greens or Independents, Dutton will look around him and pick the lowest hanging fruit. He’s unlikely to get a Green voter back, but over 9% of Australian voters chose One Nation or the United Australia party, both of which are to the right of the Liberals. If the Coalition can retain its base and attract a significant portion of these disaffected, hard-right voters, a path to government seems plausible.
There are, to be sure, significant barriers to this goal. Compulsory voting and the preferential system largely negates electoral apathy and a poor turnout, as was the case for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sky News Australia doesn’t have anything like the pervasive reach of its cousin Fox News, which is now playing a central role in tearing America to shreds. And it remains to be seen whether the National party would tolerate continued coalition with the Liberals, should they move to the fringes.
Dutton himself doesn’t need to change course. He’s already the man who walked out on Kevin Rudd’s ‘Sorry’ speech and told us Victorians were scared to leave the house, for fear of ‘African gangs’. It was Dutton who was the architect of the offshore processing of asylum seekers, at facilities where physical and sexual abuse, including of children, was rife. All Dutton need do now is ape his American counterparts, and that means…
– more dog-whistle racism, identity and culture war politics, doing things like trying to make immigration or abortion the central issue in an election, distracting people from kitchen table concerns.
– the wanton disruption of democratic processes, taking advantage of anything that is maintained by historical convention alone, and voting against everything Labor proposes, no matter what. The hand grenade approach.
– turning the volume up to eleven. Suggesting that the country is at a moment of profound, even existential crisis, and that Anthony Albanese is the most radical, divisive, mortal danger to Australia in its history.
– tolerance of unhinged party members saying the most outrageous things possible, in order to suck up the media cycle’s oxygen.
– divisive policy proposals and initiatives designed solely to use up Labor’s valuable time and slowly whittle away at Albanese’s political capital.
For these and other reasons, it seems most likely that Peter Dutton will take charge of the Liberal/National coalition and turn the party further right than at any other time in modern Australian history. For those who think this is political suicide (and they may have good reason to do so), remember that we thought just the same when Republicans nominated a failed real estate mogul TV host with bizarre hair. Bolsonaro, Trump, Duterte/Marcos, Erdogan and Orban have all shown that this political model can work. The danger is very, very real.