Dutton secures leadership with promise to divide referendum, politics

Peter Dutton will oppose the constitutional recognition of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament as he draws a new partisan divide through his Liberal Party and, should he be successful, wider Australian politics.

Mr Dutton has much of the political right behind him and all-in on a strategy that might yet turn on an old question: Can he persuade voters beyond his base to join the cause with him?

Liberal MPs were called to Canberra on Wednesday morning for a meeting mostly about restamping his authority over his party room after a rejection by Melbourne voters on Saturday in the Aston by-election.

Whatever its effect on the referendum, Mr Dutton’s plan is both clear and not entirely unfamiliar: he will bind his flagging leadership and the fate of the Liberals together and put it all on ‘no’.

Reject reset

“I’m very saddened by the response of the Liberal Party,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said. “But it shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

He said Mr Dutton had taken a political stance on something he had pretended even privately to regard as much greater. Would it hurt the vote?

“Yes it will,” he said. “Of course it will. That’s why it is so disappointing.”

The Liberals’ plan is to have Mr Dutton and deputy Sussan Ley become the most prominent early campaigners for the ‘no’ campaign. His cabinet would be obliged to join him and Nationals such as Barnaby Joyce.

Despite the weekend’s by-election disaster, only five Liberals spoke against the change and Mr Dutton said only three or perhaps four would cross the floor.

The rest will unite behind a complicated pitch to Australian voters while asking those voting ‘no’ to the government’s plan to instead back a series of regional and local bodies.

Perhaps the most obvious upside of the plan to build local Voices was the plausibility it might provide during a six- to eight-month campaign which would inevitably lead to questions about Mr Dutton’s motives, as Outspoken Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer noted.

“They have to … distance themselves from views that we will see, and have already started to see, in the context of a ‘no’ campaign that are divisive, and that are racist,” she said.

In moderation

Mr Dutton enters what is an uneven contest with every chance despite only a fraction of civil society and business expected to stand with him.

His ongoing domination by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in the polls has only recently compounded; voters now favour the PM to lead the nation over Mr Dutton 58 to 26.

And yet the Voice is not, on historical trends, at a strong point despite its national majority of 54 per cent in five states because support for proposals usually runs down.

Only 38 per cent of Australia is opposed to the Voice but it needs to win a majority of voters in a majority of states (so far only Queensland is against) when the poll is held in October or December.

If anything could override that it might be Mr Dutton’s unusual prominence in a referendum campaign where he is expected to have next to no supporting cast.

Emeritus Professor of politics at Macquarie University Murray Goot said the referendum had divided voters along party lines, but that for Mr Dutton this might present a limitation.

“I think in terms of the damage that the Liberal Party’s decision might have made to the prospects of a ‘yes’, the majority of the Coalition vote is already a ‘no’,” he said.

Polls show only about 30 per cent of Coalition voters support the proposal.

“And these people may now be less susceptible, or the least susceptible of the core voters to vote on the advice of the party leader,” he said.

“So, the one quite big question obviously is will the party decision shift that number down to 30 or 25 or something … even lower?

“If it does that, it will of course damage the prospects for the ‘yes’ side.

“But the people that are ‘yes’ at the moment on the Liberal side are maybe precisely the people that are least susceptible to the appeals of Dutton as a very conservative figure.

But the declining loyalty of voters to either major party will make the expected role of their leaders far less important than at other referendums in Australian history.

‘Not particularly popular’

“It’s difficult.

“As a campaigner, I would imagine that is handicapped by the fact that he’s not particularly popular. And if that’s true also among Liberals, [then] that’s a problem for him.”

Mr Dutton had faced criticism after a once-in-a-century by-election thrashing in Aston on Saturday and appeared uninterested in bringing the Liberal party back to voters in cities.

A loss might compound his current problems – and those of his past.

For 15 years, Mr Dutton said recently in a speech on the anniversary, he had felt conflicted about being one of the few MPs to boycott the national apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations.

The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said on Wednesday that Liberals should take care not to end up on the wrong side of history.

“I know that some people who boycotted that historic day in 2008 have since expressed their regret,” she said.

“They now admit that it was a mistake.

“And I say to those people, don’t make the same mistake again.”

Whatever he might have forfeited, Mr Dutton now has a few things in his hands he did not at the start of the week: Guaranteed time and purpose as Opposition Leader – and the possibility of a one-shot deal to national relevance.

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