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Paul Bongiorno:  Nuclear power and Liberal response to Dunkley – two things that don’t add up

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is pushing for a shift towards nuclear power.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is pushing for a shift towards nuclear power. Photo: TND

The biggest loser at the weekend was Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, and his complete absence from the media for the past three days is a sure sign he knows it.

The Labor party made up for his physical absence by flooding the polling places with unflattering pictures of the Liberal leader with a warning that to vote for the party’s candidate Nathan Conroy was in fact a vote for Peter Dutton.

Labor’s research had found the Opposition Leader had plenty of negatives with voters more generally in Victoria but weren’t sure how successfully the Liberals and their cashed-up allies at the Advance propaganda outfit had mobilised a protest vote.

Dutton’s absence from the electorate on polling day confirms that the Liberals themselves were aware that any high-profile personal presence at the booths risked tempting fate by scaring the voters.

Sure, the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was not in Dunkley for the night of the count but he spent Friday and most of Saturday there and was back in the electorate on Sunday to congratulate the new Labor member Jodie Belyea.

Albanese said he spent Saturday night celebrating his birthday over a quiet dinner with his fiancée Jodie Haydon and his son Nathan – even the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was given a miss.

Dutton’s deputy Sussan Ley filled in with a victory-sounding speech to campaign workers claiming the Liberals had capitalised on the opportunity the byelection had given them at the height of a cost-of-living crisis.

Her colleague Senator Jane Hume said she had found voters in Dunkley very angry – this nurtured thoughts of a byelection upset of the sort seen in the 2001 Ryan byelection in Brisbane. That’s when Labor’s Leonie Short achieved a 9.69 two-party-preferred result to snatch the hitherto safe Liberal seat.

In Dunkley the Liberals managed an average byelection swing of 3.64 per cent to fall well short. Labor’s primary vote of 41.10 per cent rose slightly to top the Liberals 39.34 per cent.

To raucous cheers an ebullient Sussan Ley said the “people of Dunkley have sent Anthony Albanese a strong message and it’s not ‘Happy Birthday’, it’s ‘do something about the cost-of-living crisis”.

Ley went on to claim – wrongly – that the small swing achieved if repeated at the next general election would see the Liberals return to government.

The Liberal deputy said, “this is a terrible result for the Prime Minister”.

A string of her federal front bench colleagues all claimed the result showed the party was “back in the game”.

Vote of confidence

The reality is Labor would be justified in reading the poll as a vote of confidence in the Albanese government and its willingness to boldly address the cost-of-living crisis by rejigging Scott Morrison’s stage-three tax cuts,  giving 87 per cent of  taxpayers in Dunkley more generous relief.

Deputy prime minister Richard Marles assures the nation “there is still more that needs to be done” and the government is planning to do it, Albanese says they are working on what this more will look like in the May budget.

Liberal backbenchers like Keith Wolahan are calling for the opposition to come up with some policies of its own; he for one gets that people are clearly looking for more than carping negativity and deluded projection that thinks a majority of voters hate the Labor party as much as the Liberals and Nationals do.

Just what those policies might look like is open to speculation, and the Liberals media cheer squad is happy to oblige.

The Australian gave front-page treatment to an exclusive that says Dutton will announce his signature energy policy before the May budget, which includes identifying potential sites for small nuclear reactors to provide net-zero emissions by 2050.

Labor would certainly welcome that.

Why nuclear won’t work

Anthony Albanese says the nuclear option doesn’t add up in Australia because we are decades behind European and other developed nations who already have it. 

The expense is deterring potential investors and the new-age reactors Dutton speaks of don’t yet exist in a commercially viable way.

One test for the opposition’s good faith, would be to introduce a private members bill to overturn legislation of the Howard government in 1998 and 1999 banning nuclear energy in this country.

The Coalition had almost 10 years to do it when they were in power and didn’t because of the cost and the political risk.

Policies are needed but just as urgent is a leader seen to be credible and electable as prime minister.

Unpopular opposition leaders can win elections, but they depend on governments imploding, as the Rudd/Gillard governments did for Tony Abbott in 2013 or in Albanese’s case, for the prime minister to be so on the nose like Scott Morrison in 2022 that voters deserted in droves.

The Dunkley result suggests Labor voters are more comfortable with Albanese now and there is no sign his government is riven by destabilising rivalries.

You know Dutton is in trouble when one of the Coalition’s biggest spruikers, Ben Fordham on Radio 2GB, says the Opposition Leader has questions to answer over his rushed trip last week to attend in Perth mining billionaire Gina Rinehart’s birthday for one hour.

Fordham says Dutton, “should have brushed Gina’s birthday party, if he was away from home … he should have been in Dunkley” especially as he had been catastrophising about the cost-of-living crisis.

Longtime political journalist, the former Liberal staffer and chronicler of the Liberal Party’s leadership turmoils, Niki Savva says trying to turn around Saturday’s defeat “as some kind of victory, shows a level of denial and delusion that does not serve them well”.

Savva says, “you will never win an election with denial and delusion. They have to change”.

She is right.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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