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The Guardian - AU

Peter Dutton, a ferocious partisan, is now trying to walk both sides of the street

Peter Dutton
Peter Dutton and his wife Kirilly in Brisbane. ‘Anything is possible. But this would be one hell of a shapeshift.’ Photograph: Glenn Hunt/AAP

Last time Peter Dutton wanted to be the leader of the Liberal party, he thought he might smile more.

After the Queenslander’s right faction moved against Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018, ending a months-long proxy war for the prime ministership between himself and Scott Morrison, Dutton thought he’d have liked to bring asylum seekers back from offshore detention “on a charter flight overnight” if he wasn’t constrained by the hardman rules of his portfolio.

During this brief hearts-and-minds tour, to the astonishment of many colleagues, Dutton continued with the extemporising and emoting. He felt consumer energy prices could be lower if he removed the GST from power bills. Bugger the states. Perhaps Australia also needed a royal commission into the power companies.

The intermittent smiling and the rollercoaster pitch didn’t get him there. Morrison got the numbers, got the prime ministership, won an election, then failed upwards. Last Saturday, the Liberal party was trounced in its progressive metropolitan heartland because the personal brand Morrison cultivated had turned toxic.

If the Liberal party had full control of its destiny, or if there were a suite of viable options, this political movement would not be presenting a fresh leadership team of Dutton and Barnaby Joyce as the answer to Saturday’s electoral rout, because – how can I put this politely? – that would be nuts.

The next leader of the Liberal party was supposed to be Josh Frydenberg. Dutton would have wanted the opposition leadership, and fought Frydenberg for it, but I strongly suspect Frydenberg would have won. Senior moderates have been steeling themselves for the ascension of Dutton for weeks given the likelihood that Frydenberg would lose Kooyong.

Colleagues have been telling themselves Dutton is more complicated than the performative absurdity he carries on with. Yes, Dutton can be a parody of a hardman, a Saturday Night Live sketch, but he’s actually bright, personable and competent when he clocks off from playing the role of Peter Dutton. He’s not sneaky. He’s straightforward.

Colleagues also tell themselves and each other that Dutton will need to refashion himself into a plausible portrait of putative prime ministership, and that will be an automatic stabiliser to any wholesale lurch to the right.

There are a couple of problems with this thesis. The first is this optimism overlooks recent history. Dutton is not going into the prime ministership, where prime ministerial tone is required; he’s going into opposition. The Coalition has craved high visibility contrast in opposition, alpha male swagger, burning the village to save the village.

Perhaps Dutton has the credibility and clout within his faction to repudiate Tony Abbott’s playbook. Anything is possible. But this would be one hell of a shapeshift. Dutton, like Abbott, is a ferocious partisan. This cohort of politician tends to think that ends justify means.

Dutton’s record in public life in fact speaks only to ferocious partisanship: Manchurian candidates, Chinese spy ships, late campaign boat arrivals. This reckless, destructive, self-serving caper might delight 2GB and the Sky News nightshift, but Canberra’s defence and intelligence establishment felt the need to distance themselves from Dutton’s ripping yarns in a way I’ve not seen in more than two decades of political reporting.

Anthony Albanese did inject an ameliorating character assessment after Dutton finally confirmed on Thursday that his big moment had arrived.

Albanese said Dutton was a trustworthy character; someone who kept counsel when necessary and did what they said they would do – an assessment that rings true. This quality certainly isn’t everything, but it is something in Australia’s tortured, brutal, half-unhinged politics.

The test will be whether Dutton persists with these positive character traits when he’s on the path to the biggest prize in politics. Dutton has just watched Albanese (the former Tory fighter) win the prime ministership with a political strategy that wasn’t entirely about winner-takes-all. Dutton is human. Perhaps he can learn.

In any case, Dutton’s got a huge job ahead. The remaining Liberal moderates have zero interest in being shackled to a doctrine of numpty populism espoused by the faux everyman of Australia’s Trump-lite political right – seeing that as a recipe for permanent opposition.

They will want Dutton to grapple with hard electoral arithmetic – the reality that the Liberals can’t lose six or more heartland seats in major cities and then expect to form majority government in the future.

Some rightwingers will want Dutton to push through with the strategy Morrison tried and failed to execute in the 2022 campaign: writing off metropolitan professionals and grabbing outer suburban and regional seats from Labor. They’ll think Dutton is a better frontman for that strategy, and that’s probably right in theory.

Dutton will also fancy his capacity to bounce off a new Labor government trying to avoid the crosshairs of a progressive parliament. Dutton’s experience will tell him just as the election of 2022 is a correction to the poll of 2019, 2025 can be a correction to the centrist progressivism of 2022 if Albanese can’t keep his agenda on an even keel.

So there’s opportunity, and opportunity consistent with Dutton’s political brand. But managerially, Dutton has the significant challenge of keeping his own house in order. The remaining Liberal moderates want to refill the broad church rather than empty it, and if the new leader tacks too far right, he could easily split his own party.

Dutton is opening by trying to walk all sides of the street.

He told his old mate Ray Hadley on Thursday morning: “The Liberal party has to get back to being the Liberal party, the broad church, making sure we represent all Australians but with a particular focus on people out in the suburbs, people who are doing it tough, people who are struggling to fill up the cars at the moment, people who are working hard and getting nowhere.”

A head pat for the right. A head pat for the left.

Hadley tried to prompt him to declare a side. The Sydney shock jock thought the Liberals under Dutton might be a broad church with “a conservative leaning”. Dutton didn’t take the bait. He said he was a suburban guy who had remained true to his values, but he’d learned during the Howard era that things worked best when there was a fusion of views between wets and dries.

On Thursday there was no reference to smiling more, or scratch royal commissions into power companies. Dutton said he wasn’t an extreme rightwinger. He wasn’t religious. He was the leader of the Liberal party, not the moderate conservative party or the conservative moderate party.

Dutton’s locution this time was about showing Australian voters the complete character. Leadership furnished that opportunity.

Well, Peter. By all means.

We’re watching. Bring it on.