As Albanese’s fortunes slide, people start to wonder what sort of PM Peter Dutton might make

“People need a reason to vote for us, not just to vote against the Labor Party.”

By Michelle Grattan

Peter Dutton has his tail up, but he’s being careful to manage expectations. As the opposition celebrates its suddenly improved fortunes, Dutton told the party room this week that inevitably the government would recalibrate over the summer break.

He also said that from the start, the opposition had been determined to chart a course to return to power after a single term.

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Even with Labor’s poll slide among its multiple problems, a Dutton government in 2025 looks, as things stand, unlikely – although Labor in minority is being widely canvassed.

Nevertheless, while a few months ago Dutton was considered simply “unelectable”, now that view is more hedged. If the government’s position doesn’t improve substantially, people will take a more serious look at the hard man from Queensland, and speculate about what sort of prime minister he’d make.

As often remarked, Dutton as opposition leader is another Tony Abbott. He is a relentless attacker, a devotee of the politics of negativity. It’s an unattractive style, but it can get the job done. Remember that when Abbott became leader, it seemed a joke. How could he possibly win an election?

Abbott made a success of opposition but failed in government, brought down – in part – by his poor judgement, obsessions and eccentricities (of which the Prince Philip knighthood was just the most bizarre).

Dutton observed, through the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison eras, how not to run the prime ministership. In those years he also gained ministerial experience. After being assistant treasurer in the Howard government, he was initially health minister under Abbott. He then moved to immigration, home affairs, and finally defence.

As health minister, his performance was ordinary. For him, the ministerial green grass was anything to do with national security.

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On security matters, Dutton as prime minister would lean in strongly, at home and abroad. But how would that work out in practice? If he inherited the present improved relationship with China, would he maintain or jeopardise it? Would his very arrival in office prejudice it? He certainly would never give China the benefit of any doubt. How would he deal with a Trump presidency? Or a Biden one?

If Dutton won in 2025 he would inherit a batch of economic problems. As Albanese has found, campaigning on the cost of living is easy but doing much to relieve it is not. On economic matters, Dutton presently doesn’t venture far beyond the politics, and his shadow treasurer Angus Taylor has been an ineffective performer.

That brings us to a potential Dutton cabinet. Though public attention is primarily on the leader, the quality of a government is determined to a significant extent by how good its frontbenchers are.

The Hawke government had an exceptional cabinet. Albanese has a mixed bunch, and some of them have recently set Labor back. Dutton’s team is second rate in opposition, which is not a good sign for government.

One of Dutton’s strengths – and preoccupations – as opposition leader has been holding his party together. Scott Morrison was a control and secrecy freak and a self-confessed “bulldozer”. Dutton is regarded as collegial, even by some Liberals who don’t share his views. He looks to John Howard as a model (one Liberal observer describes him as “a student of Howard”) and would probably run an orderly, conventional cabinet system.

Dutton is also pragmatic. This was evident in government when he facilitated (via the idea of a postal vote) resolving the marriage equality issue, regardless of his personal opinion on it.

But – and this is a major problem – he gives no indication of big picture thinking, let alone an ambitious reform agenda. Policy tidbits he has thrown out in budget reply speeches are small and ad hoc. Leading a Liberal party dominated by conservatives, and with many traditional Liberal voters looking to the teals, Dutton has neither the scope nor the personality to appeal to the country as an inspirational leader.

He does, however, know his prime constituency: the financially-stretched families on the outer rings of the cities. How they will judge him at election time remains to be seen.

Labor is putting maximum effort into discrediting Dutton, all the more important as the memory of Morrison starts to dim. Given he’s long been an unpopular and divisive figure, Dutton’s been a relatively easy target, but this might wear a tad thin.

As the election draws nearer, Dutton and his minders look to his image. He appeared on Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet and cooked her a seafood chowder, an upmarket potato soup, presumably a riff on the frequent depiction of him as “potato head”.

Eyewear is now a thing in pursuing the prime ministership. Albanese’s new specs received many media mentions. Dutton’s eyesight may or may not have suddenly deteriorated but his appearance has been improved by donning glasses.

Dutton will remain anathema to parts of the electorate. At the state level: in Victoria. At an electorate level: in the teal territory. But the ex-cop from Queensland is a strong asset in that state, where the Coalition needs to guard against Labor incursions.

At Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting, Dutton indicated next year would see the rollout of policy. This will be a massive test for him. He’s suggested the Coalition won’t pursue a “small target” strategy, as Albanese did. But Bill Shorten showed the risks of going big-target. Dutton will presumably seek to position himself somewhere in between. “We will have a bold agenda,” he told the NSW Liberals at the weekend. “People need a reason to vote for us, not just to vote against the Labor Party.”

His policies will be tested on two fronts. Are they attractive to middle and lower-middle Australia? And can they stand up to the assaults the government (and experts) will mount on them? Dutton will need to clear both hurdles to be credible at the election. And on the economic front, he will be facing the formidable skills of Treasurer Jim Chalmers who, one imagines, will be charged with much of the demolition task.

Also challenging will be Dutton’s policy on climate and energy. He wants to exploit Labor’s problems with the energy transition, but can’t afford to appear reactionary on climate. He’s attracted to nuclear power but will need to be cautious in how he puts it on the table. His energy policy must be deliverable, even if he never gets to deliver it.

Assuming Dutton’s hope of just one term in opposition is fanciful, what would happen if he took substantial bark off Albanese at the election, resulting in minority government?

The conventional wisdom is Dutton gets only one chance. If Josh Frydenberg had decided to contest the 2025 election, and returned to parliament, he’d have been next in line. Sussan Ley and others carry their batons, although there is no heir apparent.

But a skilled head kicker can be quite effective against a minority government and Dutton might, just possibly, hold his post, at least for a time.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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