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This is not Dutton's Trump moment



So Malcolm Turnbull has managed to fend off a challenge to his leadership by hard-right insurgent Peter Dutton using that most time-honoured of techniques: blasting out of the proverbial gate before his opponent had a chance to count the numbers. It's a shaky victory at best, and represents the culmination of a decade's worth of increasingly diseased politics and a media machine which naturally incentivises instability.

Malcolm Turnbull and Peter DuttonDutton's grand scheme is probably the most flagrant power grab in recent Australian political memory, and has not come as a surprise in any way whatsoever. Fresh from consolidating policing and border powers under a single super-portfolio, the now-former Minister for Home Affairs has clearly been skulking around the battlements waiting for his opportunity to go for the top gig. So transparently, in fact, that journalists have been alluding to it for years.

What are we to make of this sense of tedious inevitability to the endless churn of leadership over the past decade? Australian politics has found a weird equilibrium between the government and media on this subject; a perpetual motion machine feeding leadership speculation constantly. The government backgrounds journalists, who then write stories which fuel more backgrounding, which become more stories, until there's absolutely no sense where any of it started or why. The public doesn't care about the nitty-gritty. All we know is this: it's on.

Already we've moved seamlessly into the next phase: puff pieces engineered by Dutton's media unit to sand away the rougher edges of his image. The administration of the violent bureaucracy of offshore detention doesn't really fill out a leadership resumé on its own — now he has to be a guy with a 'self-deprecating sense of humour' who 'loves a beer'.

Despite all this posturing, it's not like there isn't an actual war for the heart of the Liberal Party happening right now. Turnbull represents the last vestige of metropolitan neoliberalism against the febrile populism represented by Dutton. The fact that they both push fundamentally the same policies — from corporate tax cuts to the brutalisation of asylum seekers — is immaterial. We know Turnbull's ostensibly small-l liberal bona fides evaporated the moment he became Prime Minister. It's the vibe of the thing.

The primary vote of Australia's major parties is atrophying in the face of an electorate who increasingly seek radical solutions at both ends of the political spectrum. Such solutions are outside the purview of the aged student politicians who occupy our Parliament.

Dutton represents a rebellion from the hard-right of the party, which has been bleeding votes to parties like One Nation over the past few years. He is willing to indulge the darker strains of reactionary populism which have re-emerged over the past few years, including fixations on harsh immigration controls and aggressive cultural conservatism. Whether he'd be remotely capable of bringing those elements back under the banner of the Liberal Party is another question entirely.


"The policy vision of both major parties is so vanishingly narrow that one has to wonder what would actually be achieved by this mythical stable leadership and civil bipartisanship everyone is yearning for."


There's certainly no sense that, despite the fears of progressives, there is a significant portion of the electorate absolutely begging to install Dutton on the throne. A ReachTel poll on Monday found only 12 per cent of the electorate preferred Dutton as leader of the Liberal Party, with 61.9 per cent backing Turnbull in a two-way contest. This is no Trump moment. Dutton is an opportunist who has the right conservative aesthetic — or so he and his backers assume.

This was always the natural endpoint of the constant see-saw of leadership: some guy who nobody knows and nobody likes being thrust into the top job by a panicked backbench. Like all great decisions of world-historical significance, it's out of fear of losing their own seats than any particular vision for the country.

The endless tut-tutting about Australia's lack of political stability rings hollow too. The policy vision of both major parties is so vanishingly narrow that one has to wonder what would actually be achieved by this mythical stable leadership and civil bipartisanship everyone is yearning for. Say that the Coalition actually did 'get on with the business of government' as commentators constantly demand they do. What would that even look like? More of the same, probably.

Now that Turnbull's frontbench is handing in their resignations en masse, that palpable sense of inevitability is settling in again. Of course Dutton will challenge again, because that's how it goes. All we can do now is wait and see.



JR HennessyJ. R. Hennessy is a writer and editor in Sydney. 

Topic tags: JR Hennessy, Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull, LibSpill



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Existing comments

Extremely insightful, sadly. When will politics in our country return to normalcy? It needs to.

Edward Fido | 22 August 2018  

"All we can do now is wait and see". Hmm, perhaps for not much longer. Turn on your TV.

Stephen de Weger | 22 August 2018  

A great article and I despair for the current malaise of Australian Politics. Turnbull had (from my view) one moment of freedom - an interview with Leigh Sales just after he ousted Tony Abbott where he spoke freely about a range of Political issues. And that was it as he was shut down by whoever. A Dutton lead Coalition will never win the election - here is hoping that Bill Shorten might go the distance of a full term - but he was the ring leader to oust Rudd - he may still have baggage. Well the press will remind him I am sure.

Mark Dowell | 22 August 2018  

Thank you JP Hennessy for this insightful article. It is very true that Peter Dutton comes from the extreme right of the "Liberal" Party. However, we have to ask how many progressive voices are there in that party? The very small number of reasonably progressive true liberals virtually disappeared from the party during John Howard's term as PM Before he became PM, Malcolm Turnbull put a lot of energy into cultivating his image as a true liberal who cared about the environment, human rights, social justice etc. However, most of his government's policies are very unfriendly to the environment, ordinary battling Australians, asylum seekers, effective social services and are getting us further entangled with the wars and policies of the US Military Industrial Complex. Turnbull's policies show that he is very much controlled by the extreme right of the party with Tony Abbott , Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton being the key puppeteers. I also agree with concerns about where the ALP stands. Because of the huge overlap of its policies with those of the LNP Coalition, some say that ALP initials stand for the Alternative Liberal Party! A major reason for our two major political parties being so right wing is the fact that they came under the influence of Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, the founder of the extreme right wing National Civic Council. This man was a promoter of fascism before WW2, supported the invasions of Indochina and East Timor, split the ALP and attemped to undermine unions getting the best conditions for their members. Neither of these parties truly represent Australians who believe in social justice, human rights and effective care of the environment.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 August 2018  

It is the brutalisation of asylum seekers by both Turnbull and Dutton, as well as by Labor leaders, that I find both totally un-Christian and very un-Australian. 12 desperate people seeking asylum sent to off-shore hell-holes have already died. Depression and self-harm are now the norm for these desperate people. Be very careful who you vote for at the next Federal election. The largely bi-lateral support for such cruelty should be a major consideration in the mind of any decent voting Australian.

Grant Allen | 22 August 2018  

Apologies if I am repeating a recent comment, but the sooner the Coalition conservatives do the honourable thing and join their erstwhile colleague, Cory Bernadi in the Australian Conservatives (if I remember correctly the name of his new party), the better for the Liberal Party. It can then get on being Liberal by returning to its liberal origins, invoking the British Liberal tradition specifically chosen by its founder, Bob Menzies, as more suited to Australia than the Tory alternative. Optimistically, such a move could go further, with many of the professionals who now support the ALP then switching allegiance to the renewed Liberal Party, which would allow the workers who feel disenfranchised by ALP's centrist policies, to re-boot their party as truly a Labor party. Please hold your hoots of derision at such an idealist comment. Save them for the Australian Parliament, both sides, who deserve them far more than yet another voter, effectively disenfranchised by politicians who prefer politicking more than policies and administration.

Ian Fraser | 22 August 2018  

Prescient article, considering the author had no prior knowledge of Turnbull re-establishing his authority in the parliament today and, properly in my view, letting Dutton sweat it out on the backbench in response to Labor's inquiries about his business dealings. Politics, while treacherous, is all we have to manage and hold onto our imperfect democracy. I endorse very much the wishful thinking of Ian Fraser. A revitalised and authentically small and big L Liberal party could well re-establish Labor as the authentic party of the Left. However, I very much doubt that will eventuate as the Greens occupy that position in a post-communist world, despite Julie Bishop invoking the spectre of communism in Portugal for an attack on Labor today. Politics, in a neo-liberal world has inexorably shifted to the Right. It makes sense for thoughtful people with the kind of socially just aspirations associated with Eureka Street to vote Green. But then our Catholic sentiments would instinctively revolt against the adventurous personal morality/sexual free-for-all/pantheistic agenda promoted by that party. Lord, Where Is Thy Voice when we need it to sort out this mess?

Michael Furtado | 22 August 2018  

Why anyone should be at all surprised at the current state of affairs in Canberra I have no idea. We have politicians in both major political parties who have been able to agree on very little - except for the inhuman treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. With this in common why all the kerfuffle about their selfishness in seeking to ensure their longevity in parliament? True human values need to underpin policies. The selective care of some while neglecting others is evident in our immigration policies as is the distribution of funds by the government. There are a few, a small minority, of politicians who have spoken up in criticism of our immoral treatment of those on Manus and Nauru. If only their voices could be heard above the clamour of the fear mongers who claim with evident pride “ we stopped the boats.” So what? Is it an Australian value to be proud of bullying the underdog rather than offering a helping hand? No, it’s not the economy stupid! It is about our ability to live by values that make us proud to be human.

Ern Azzopardi | 22 August 2018  


And in the visitation of the winds,

Who take the ruffian billows by the top,

Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them

With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,

That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!


Brian b | 23 August 2018  

Sir Robert Menzies would be appalled at the behaviour of present day so called liberals, whose behaviour is disgusting, while poor innocent children languish near death’s point in detention, and there is draught and climate change etc that we all know about. I don’t have much respect for any of the liberal members at present, nor Bill Shorten either. Albo has some redeeming features, of being able to question himself and his actions. Rudd and Keating, and the Menzies family from where I grew up, I had a respect for, but those days are finished. Where can I go now for a political role model? The Greens leader gave parliament a good and overdue serving yesterday. I support their partie’s scientific perspective but they seem morally bankrupt in other ways. The fringe parties are out of my support areas. Immigrating to NZ seems a political alternative. I have a lot of respect for Jacinda. The whole circus continues on while our planet groans under the weight of human exploitation and lack of real care.

John Whitehead | 24 August 2018  

'The greens seem morally bankrupt' but what we saw this week from the Liberal Party wasn't? There's a lot more to morality than sex, John Whitehead. What sort of moral example do you thing the likes of Dutton and Abbott set for our children, including the children of our immigrant communities?

Ginger Meggs | 24 August 2018  

An apt historical quote about our august assembly as history repeats itself: “I desired that the Senate of Rome might appear before me in one large chamber, and a modern representative, in counterview, in another. The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demi-gods; the other, a knot of pedlars, pick-pockets, highwaymen, and bullies.” ? Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels Perhaps the challenger should have duttoned his mouth.

Frank Armstrong | 25 August 2018  

In retrospect, Peter Dutton did what was necessary for the Liberal Party: flush the hare out of the bushes so another hound could catch him. Perhaps it was better that he did not become leader, but it was better that he enabled (or liberated) half the party room to tell the then incumbent leader that he ought to go. Dutton enabled them to exercise a real choice in choosing a leader (Bishop, Dutton, Morrison, Turnbull) than to be stuck with a Hobson’s choice between a failed intransigent or a challenger with mediocre public optics. Pushed by circumstances to serve, he served, and he ought to be rewarded with his previous ministry or one close in cabinet status to it.

Roy Chen Yee | 26 August 2018  

I guess Dutton got what he and his cronies wanted. Turnbull is gone, Bishop apparently will be going and the more moderate members of the Liberal Party have had a serious setback in terms of leadership. They didn’t get all they wanted but they do have one of their own in the top job, so they should be happy. I’m not sure why it happened. You might think there would be some shift on climate or tax policy, but nothing so far. Maybe they aren’t priorities or maybe this wasn’t about policies at all. Interesting that if Cormann, Fifield and Cash had stayed loyal, the insurgency would have failed. Professor Judith Brett (no relation) in an opinion piece on the ABC website today writes that the modern day Liberal Party is putting ideology ahead of pragmatism, something that historically led to splits in the Labor Party, “and have torn down a leader for being too mainstream”. Time will tell if any of this was necessary to save the Liberal Party… or if it is over. Watch your back ScoMo.

Brett | 28 August 2018  

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