Michael Pascoe: The ratings are in: Dutton’s a dud – a dangerous dud

10 News First – Disclaimer

Forget the various polls and pundits, the real voice of the Australian people has spoken: Peter Dutton is a dud – and getting worse.

No wonder he’s thrown the switch to One Nation populism.

As every politician behind in the opinion polls says, the only poll that counts is the election, but coming a close second is what we do with our TV remote controls.

Television ratings are as brutally honest as the Australian Electoral Commission in deciding what stars are hot and who is about to be cancelled.

The tribe has spoken – Peter Dutton is failing talent.

Crikey ratings analyst Glenn Dyer dug out the numbers for the last three budgets and budget replies.

The Treasurer’s half hour upon the stage has held as good as steady for three budgets in a row – 630,000 viewers for Josh Frydenberg’s March 2022 effort, 629,000 for Jim Chalmers’ October premier, 627,000 for Tuesday night’s reprise.

It’s a different story for the Opposition Leader’s reply.

Anthony Albanese pulled an audience of 519,000 in reply to Mr Frydenberg last year.

That dropped to 420,000 for Mr Dutton’s October reply – and dropped again on Thursday night to 386,000.

If Mr Dutton was a drama series on that trajectory, he’d be cancelled.

He’s fortunate there’s no other show in the wings to fill his slot.

It becomes a matter of opinion whether those holding the remote controls find Mr Dutton boring, irrelevant or worse.

But the falling audience, people not wanting to listen, does not mean Mr Dutton’s budget reply wasn’t dangerous. Fewer people watched, but plenty more have since read or heard the dog whistle he blew on immigration.

The temptation to go low is entirely understandable. The housing crisis is only getting worse, the government has no real policy to deal with it, population growth is an obvious factor, the big migration numbers thrown around have caught community attention and concern – and Mr Dutton’s other ratings are so low, he has nothing to lose by taking lessons from Pauline Hanson.

And Mr Dutton is no stranger to the populist tactics of pointing a stick at minorities and foreigners. He has done it to Indigenous Australians, refugees, and led the Morrison Government’s attacks on China which, with a little domestic security nudge, were felt by Australian Chinese.

(Just about everyone has overlooked that it was Peter Dutton who started the disastrous Australian “Chinah” campaign, being the first to echo the American Republicans’ nod-nod, wink-wink demand for an international investigation into COVID’s origins. Marise Payne and Scott Morrison subsequently fell into line.)

Scott Morrison Peter Dutton

Dutton and Morrison led the anti-China charge. Photo: AAP

Latching onto the big headline NOM (net overseas migration) figures comes easily for a populist who has good reason not to be troubled by the possibility of being in government any time soon.

Yes, our immigration story did deliver the famous surplus, as Abul Rizvi has explained – we rely on population growth to avoid outright recession.

It’s easy to whistle at this financial year’s forecast 400,000 NOM as long as you ignore how that figure is made up. And if you happen to give the impression those 400,000 are migrants – rather than some migrants, a great many students and backpackers and the corollary of Australians not yet going on long trips overseas in our usual numbers – well, so much the better.

And while many people see the headline, few delve into the figures to see that the headline is mainly a result of the previous government’s policies and that Mr Dutton as the responsible minister was actually pursuing just as “big” an Australia as the current government.

When suggesting Australia needs to cut migration, it would be helpful to indicate who would be kept offshore.

Cut into the 137,100 places in the skill stream that “designed to improve the productive capacity of the economy and fill skill shortages in the labour market, including those in regional Australia”.

Can’t see the LNP and its sponsors buying that, especially the 32,300 “regional” visas. 

Or cut the 52,500 places in the family stream, which includes 40,500 partner visas and 3,000 children. No, wouldn’t be popular.

Refugees are an easy target for Mr Dutton, (seen any African gangs lately?) but it would be a bad look indeed for such a rich country in a world awash with tragedy to cut back on the mere 17,875 places offered this year.

Otherwise, it’s cutting the international students our tertiary institutions rely on or the backpackers our service industries have been missing – both streams that create lifelong ambassadors for Australia if they are done well.

But the Hanson/Dutton dog whistle is never about real policy – it’s “the vibe” of amplifying instead of dealing with community concerns.

If you’re wondering what this says about the Liberal Party returning to the past, it’s not as simple as recalling that John Howard as Opposition Leader in 1988 echoed One Nation in suggesting the rate of Asian immigration be reduced – something Mr Howard subsequently regretted. Turned out it was bad politics.

No, there is an easier explanation.

For all the millions of words that have been written since the election about what is happening to the Liberal Party in general and its moderates in particular, Labor campaign strategist Kos Samaras summed it up in two tweets answering why the Liberal Party is opposing the Voice:

Basically, the old idea that the National Party was the tail wagging the Coalition dog has been reversed.

Now it’s the Queensland LNP dog with a Liberal tail – and the few remaining moderates are but fleas on that tail.

It provides a party competing for votes against One Nation rather than Labor – a show of diminishing appeal for city viewers.

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