Dutton’s Delhi-berations: Passage to India a bad sign for one Liberal MP

The Opposition Leader is in India the week.

The Opposition Leader is in India the week. Photo: Instagram

Peter Dutton is at a crossroads.

The future of Bridget Archer, the Liberals’ most prominent rebel MP, hangs on his choice of path, but so does the party’s strategy for the next election.

Archer is a moderate Liberal whose willingness to break ranks and speak her mind has endeared her to the public but angered party conservatives who have reportedly been planning to challenge her preselection.

On Monday, she signalled her intention to stare down any challenge.

“It’s my intention to seek endorsement for the next election,” the Tasmanian MP said.

Dutton has until next year to decide whether to protect a sitting MP who holds a crucial seat, Bass, by less than 1.5 per cent.

But whichever path Dutton chooses will bring the big unresolved question of his leadership into the foreground: Whether the Liberals intend to try to recapture the middle ground of Australian politics.

Dutton had previously tolerated Archer’s willingness to go her own way on issues of conscience.

But when the MP voted against his push for a royal commission into sexual abuse in Indigenous communities, he called the move a “mistake”.

Bridget Archer has vowed to stare down any challenge to her preselection. Photo: AAP

Archer, who is a survivor of child sexual abuse, accused Dutton of seeking to “weaponise” the issue for political advantage.

Her criticism echoes Indigenous children’s advocates.

But it puts Archer on a collision course with Dutton over an issue that he sees as a political winner following the defeat of the Indigenous Voice referendum.

Archer rose to prominence when voting against the Morrison government and for an anti-corruption commission.

She was also the only Liberal MP to vote to censure the former PM over his secret self-appointments to cabinet portfolios.

With a notable exception, she has often been the lone voice of Liberal dissent on major issues.

Other party moderates have considered the effect of speaking out on their promotion prospects or favoured meek private protest.

Her conservative critics say that dynamic is precisely the problem.

As the party has veered further right, Archer’s profile has only increased every time she speaks out.

Neighbouring Tasmanian Liberal MP Gavin Pearce has reportedly considered challenging Archer in protest at these displays of dissent.

The Liberals can ill afford to lose either seat.

But allowing the challenge would signal that Dutton has no intention of wooing back the moderate voters who threw the Liberals out of six inner-city seats in May 2022.

It would also raise the prospect of losing a seventh were Archer to nominate as an independent and win Bass.

But intervening to stop a challenge could embolden Archer’s displays of conscience at a time when Dutton is moving towards deeply regressive policies on Indigenous affairs.

Dutton is in India this week. Such excursions are highly unusual for opposition leaders, especially those arguing the government has become distracted from a cost-of-living crisis.

The trip is about appearing like a prime minister, but it might also inadvertently be a strong hint about the strategy Dutton will pursue in his bid for that office.


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A post shared by Peter Dutton (@peterduttonmp)

He travelled to New Delhi at the invitation of the India Australia Strategic Alliance.

Its president is a Liberal Party member from Sydney’s north-west, where the local Sikh community has been a bedrock of support for members of the Liberals’ religious right faction.

Eric Abetz, an uber-conservative former Tasmanian Liberal Senator, launched the group in 2013 before an audience of several other members of the same faction.

Abetz has previously been named as a possible beneficiary of any plot to bring down Archer, which could pave the way for his return to Parliament.

Dutton’s office did not respond to questions.

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