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Dutton's gamble against the Voice


Four days after being handed a thumping defeat in the Aston byelection, Peter Dutton has taken the biggest gamble of his political career. On Wednesday, flanked by his deputy Sussan Ley, Dutton finally confirmed what had long been expected — the Liberal party will oppose the indigenous Voice to parliament and the opposition leader will campaign against it.

In choosing this path Dutton has potentially placed his future as leader of the Liberal Party on the line and chosen to align himself against a still-popular new prime minister, a veritable who’s who of Indigenous leaders advocating for the Voice and community sentiment.

All published opinion polls show the proposal has majority or near-majority support in every state and territory, though that support is softening.

The breadcrumbs for Dutton and the Liberals arriving at the decision to oppose the Voice — and sundry other policy positions — were laid nearly 12 months ago, in the opposition leader’s first press conference.

Dutton repeatedly promised to focus on winning votes in the suburbs, to speak up for small business, to critically work through the detail of the proposed Voice to parliament, to support sensible climate change policies that did not hurt families or small businesses and he did not resile from his tough talk about the challenge posed by China’s rise.

In the 12 months since the Coalition has opposed Labor’s climate policies, formalised its opposition to the Voice and remained hawkish on China, while attempting to reset its relationship with Chinese-Australian voters.


'Aston, held by the Liberals since 1990, was supposed to remain in the Liberal column. The byelection defeat has rightly alarmed Liberals about the party’s direction.'


The opposition leader also said in that first press conference that voters had sent a ‘pox on both your houses’ message to the major parties and highlighted swings against Labor in outer suburban seats.

And while it’s true Labor’s primary vote fell to 32 per cent and it suffered swings against it in some outer suburban seats, that swing was more than offset by Labor, the Greens and the so-called teals and other independents gaining seats in capital cities across the country.

A progressive majority of 89 seats was elected to the House, just one fewer than Tony Abbott won in his thumping 2013 election win. Aston, held by the Liberals since 1990, was supposed to remain in the Liberal column. The byelection defeat has rightly alarmed Liberals about the party’s direction. Dutton’s strategy of highlighting rising cost of living pressures and opposing the Albanese government on key pieces of legislation did not work.

In the wake of the defeat, Liberal MPs I spoke to blamed the dysfunctional state branch, people not yet blaming Labor for those cost of living pressures, the parachuting in of candidate Roshena Campbell from across town and the timing of the retirement of sitting member Alan Tudge.

While the excuses are many, the simple fact is this: Aston is exactly the sort of seat the Liberals under Dutton should be hanging on to, and Dutton’s plan has been to win more of them at the next federal election.

While Labor won just eight seats at the election, the Coalition lost 18 and needs 18 to return to the government benches. That’s an enormous task, especially considering the last one term government in Australia was James Scullin’s, which was booted out in 1932.

By opposing the Voice to parliament, Dutton likely makes his own task of winning back the formerly heartland Liberal seats taken by the Teals, Greens and Labor more difficult, too. The members for Higgins, Kooyong, Goldstein (in Melbourne), Warringah, North Sydney, Wentworth, Mackellar (Sydney), Brisbane, Ryan and Griffith (Brisbane) and Curtin (Perth) will all be backing the Yes campaign.

The question then becomes are there enough outer suburban seats for the Liberals to win back power at the next election and the Aston result suggests that right now, the answer is no.

So why would Dutton oppose the Voice and narrow his path to the Lodge?

First, Dutton lived through the Brendan Nelson-Malcolm Turnbull-Tony Abbott leadership changes between 2007 and 2010 and he has placed a premium on keeping his party united and has managed it so far. Given the vast majority of his MPs oppose the Voice to parliament, Dutton was always going to formally oppose it.

Second, Dutton has judged that support for the Voice is soft and will likely soften further in the lead up to the referendum day, which is likely to be October 14. He is genuine when he says he regrets walking out of the 2008 apology and when he says he wants to see practical solutions to the problems that beset regional and remote Indigenous communities — but of course, there is also a potential political dividend by opposing the referendum.

Dutton’s choice of words on Wednesday about the ‘Prime Minister’s Canberra Voice’ was no accident and recalled Tony Abbott’s lethal ability to deploy language as a weapon. Expect to hear that phrase repeatedly in the coming months.

Defeat in the referendum would be damaging to Anthony Albanese and Labor — to say nothing of the damage to Australia’s social fabric and relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians — though the prime minister will blame the opposition leader if the referendum is defeated and his supporters will likely agree with him.

This, combined with 880,000 people moving from a fixed rate to a (higher rate) variable mortgage in 2023 housing shortages, spiralling rents and food prices means there is a chance the political mood could swing away from Albanese and Labor by the end of 2023.

Opposing the Voice pleases the Liberal Party’s so-called base and is consistent with Dutton’s views and his supporters in the party room, but it’s a high stakes gamble for the opposition leader to take, too.

Does it make him a viable alternative prime minister?

This brings us back to Aston. The first electoral test of the opposition leader, a painful defeat, does not augur well. If he cannot win outer suburban seats like Aston — and former Liberal seats held by Teals are beyond reach, in part because of his opposition to the Voice — then there is no path to the prime ministership for Dutton.

But if the referendum fails, the economy tanks and a growing number of people can’t pay their mortgages or rents, the mood of the country could turn very quickly.




James Massola is National Affairs editor for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, based in Canberra. He has previously been South-East Asia Correspondent, based in Jakarta, and Chief Political Correspondent in Canberra. He has also worked for the Canberra Times, the Australian, the Australian Financial Review, as assistant editor of Eureka Street and is a regular commentator on ABC radio and TV. He is also the author ofThe Great Cave Rescue about the Thai boys football team.

Main image: Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton reacts during Question Time at Parliament House on March 30, 2023 in Canberra, Australia. (Martin Ollman/Getty Images)

Topic tags: James Massola, Peter Dutton, Indigenous Voice to Parliament, Liberal Party, Aston, Opposition



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Existing comments

When is someone going to tell us what function the Voice has and what it going to go, and how much will be its annual budget??

BERNARD TRESTON | 06 April 2023  
Show Responses

We've already been told, Bernard.

The function of the Voice is in the proposed amendment, viz. to 'make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples'. No secret there.

'What it going to go, and how much will be its annual budget' will be a matter for the parliament of the day - now and in future - to determine. No secrets there either.


Ginger Meggs | 09 April 2023  

Maybe Dutton is taking a wild gamble -that there’s a sufficient number of quiet Australians who are concerned enough about the insidious growth totalitarianism associate with Labor Party politics. If so, maybe they’ll see in the Liberal Party their only hope of challenging it. I’m an old-school Labor voter who is concerned about this. I’m hoping to vote Yes in the referendum -but there’s something very disturbing in being judged and dismissed by the government just because I have questions. I’m not a fascist, a racist, or even a Liberal voter. I am a citizen. I want a bit of respect, please!

Joan Seymour | 06 April 2023  

The Coalition is now dominated by the Queensland NLP, and is composed of 3 parties - The Nationals, Liberals and QLD LNP. It is using now slogans like "Canberra-based" to diminish the Federal Government, our Commonwealth and Australian nationalism. The current leadership is unstable and being challenged within the NLP. It is opposing the Voice in an attempt to build its own profile and not for its stated reasons.

James Larry Vincent | 07 April 2023  

Hello James, I have a question: will the Voice give First Nations people greater, less than or the same level of influential power over Parliament and the Executive as that exercised by billionaire Media, Mining and Industry Moguls through the Canberra Lobby industry? Leaving out of course, media assassinations of politicians who dare show the Moguls disobedience.

Fosco | 07 April 2023  

Peter Dutton did exactly what Liberal voters expected, so for that he should be applauded. The reasoning put forward for the objection to the Voice to parliament is strong and gives voters a clear choice when going to the ballot box. The referendum debate is not over, nor should it be, and so yes that does make Dutton a viable alternative prime minister.
If the Liberal Party continue to take the soft approach on policies they took to the election because of fear of retribution at the ballot box, then why bother campaigning at all.
At some point the tide will turn on Albanese and Labor. In the meantime, the Liberal party members need to reset, listen and remain true to the people they represent at the grassroots because that is non-negotiable going forward.

Anna | 07 April 2023  

As many intelligent commentators have said, the Prime Minister's statements on The Voice are strong on generalization and weak on detail. Anthony Albanese is no Sir Robert Menzies: he lacks both eloquence and persuasive ability. Newspoll has been wrong before and the passing of this referendum is by no means guaranteed. Peter Dutton is doing what an Opposition Leader should do: he is concretely and positively engaging in policy debate. If the referendum is lost it will not be the end of the world, but back to the drawing board. I would suggest that the economy and international relations are as important as The Voice, if not more so. The phasing out of cheap, reliable coal-fired power plants in favour of renewables without a proper transition plan is a disaster waiting to happen. This is the honeymoon stage for Labor: it could turn nasty as events unfold, as I believe they will.

Edward Fido | 08 April 2023  

No-one has mentioned the women's vote. Just before the Aston by-election, John Pesutto tried to expel Moira Deeming from the Liberal Party and failed. However, he then said she was suspended until the end of the year. There are many women disgusted with Pesutto's rush to accuse Moira Deeming of being associated with Nazis, an accusation she roundly disputes. In recent times I have heard quite a few women, disturbed by the way gender ideology has captured parties, say they will never again voted Labor, Green or Animal Justice. Now it seems the Liberal Party joins the list. These women are saying they feel like political orphans. Why is there no public discussion about this?

I am wondering how this will affect the referendum.

Janet | 08 April 2023  

I have another question for James. Mr Dutton wants expert assurance from the ghost of Sir Samuel Griffith on the Constitutionality of the Voice. Is this because the Liberal Party does not want to repeat their criminality of Robodebt? Or, is it just crass wedge politics?

Also, when are we getting articles on the Voice from First Nations People?

Fosco | 09 April 2023  

You've hit the nail on the head Fosco!! Wouldn't it be wonderful if we, the people, had the influence of the Canberra lobbyists. Then we might to be able to claim that we live in a true democracy. Where is the peoples' voice to parliament ? It certainly doesn't express itself through our elected members of parliament.

john frawley | 09 April 2023  
Show Responses

I think maybe it is, John. I'd say that the Teals and other independents are a lot closer to expressing 'the people's voice' than most of the candidates chosen, endorsed, financed and constrained by the major parties. They don't do it perfectly of course (who does?), but I think that they probably do a better job.

Ginger Meggs | 11 April 2023  

A good piece of photo-journalism from ABC ONLINE NEWS on the weekend:


I asked myself, who at the remote East Kimberley town of Halls Ck is being carried away by the national promotion of The Voice. Local Halls Ck voices have been speaking for some time, and getting things done, granted that governments could do more. I doubt the likes of Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson, Patrick Dodson, independently of the likes of Jacinta Price, Warren Mundine and Michael Manson, could add anything definitive through a Canberra lobby/Indigenous Voice representing to parliament and the executive governmnt of the day after a drawn-out process that would get old information about closing gaps which Halls Ck voices are already addressing. Then in so much talking about 'closing gaps' it's not as though there is a perfectibility at stake, the recovery of an erstwhile 'noble nomad' era. I have long remembered the opinions of two well respected, albeit non-Indigenous, anthropologists: Ronald Berndt who surmised there was an 'immemorial misdirection' suggested from his relations and studies with 'first nations' people, while William Stanner spoke of his Indigenous interlocutors as living with a 'sad finality' in their lives and yet with the capacity "to collapse into laughter" - a humour not missing altogether from the Christian celebration of an unfinished Easter.
I am pro-recognition of First Nations Peoples in the Constitution, but not convinced of the usefulness of enshrining a Voice to parliament and the executive government.

Noel McMaster | 10 April 2023  
Show Responses

Well stated, Noel - "I am pro-recognition of First Nations Peoples in the Constitution, but not convinced of the usefulness of enshrining a Voice to parliament and the executive government." That's just about where I find myself on this critical issue right now.

John RD | 12 April 2023  

Is that the question that you should be asking yourselves, Noel and John ? You may not be 'convinced of its usefulness', but it appears, from the extensive consultation that took place prior to the Uluru Statement, that the majority of First Nations people are convinced. If they have asked for it, and are convinced of its usefulness, then surely your concerns about 'usefulness' are irrelevant. For getting on for one quarter of a millennium, non-indigenous people have been telling First Nations peoples what's best for them, what would be 'useful' to them. Surely it's time that we accepted their view of what would be useful to them.

If you have other concerns, let's hear them, but to be persuasive they have to be good enough to trump the considered request contained in the Uluru statement.

Ginger Meggs | 20 April 2023  

Thank you for this article James and congratulations on your prediction that this was a high risk strategy for the Liberal Party.

This prediction has certainly proved to be accurate!

Ken Wyatt – its former indigenous affairs minister – has resigned from the party. Julian Leeser - the former shadow attorney - has resigned from the front bench in protest. Liberal Party MP Bridget Archer and Liberal premier of Tasmania - Jeremy Rockliff - will campaign vigorously in support of the Yes vote as will the former Liberal federal minister for Aboriginal affairs Fred Chaney. Even Malcolm Turnbull who as PM was very dismissive of the Uluru Statement has changed his tune.

Liberal party members are fond of talking about how it is a party that supports “liberal values”. Its history shows, however, that it has always been a right wing party that has had a few truly liberal minded people in it.

During the Howard years, the more liberal minded members were largely driven out of the party and its leaders became more mean minded and cruel towards those in need, gave billions to the corporations and the mega wealthy (many of whom pay little or no tax whatsoever), wasted billions on US initiated wars and, as you said, did nothing to develop strategies to address the pollution that is causing climate change and millions of premature deaths every year.

Australians who value the rights of our Indigenous people must now pull out all stops to ensure the Voice becomes a reality.
This is long overdue.

For those who doubt the need for it, I would encourage you to read the book “Finding the Heart of the Nation – the journey of the Uluru Statement from the Heart continues” by Thomas Mayor.

Thomas comes from a Torres Strait Islander background, but grew up in Darwin. He was active in helping to formulate the Uluru Statement from the Heart and was given the task of taking the original statement and the art work prepared to go with it around the nation to key Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities. The book is about that journey and shows the reader why the overwhelming majority of Indigenous people want a Voice, a Treaty and Truth Telling.

And we have to realise that the right of the ALP is firmly in control of that party. Many of them come from the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and National Civic Council tradition which ensured that a much more socially aware and progressive ALP was kept out of office was kept out of office for about two decades.

It is good that it is promoting the Voice, but it is also continuing some of the worst policies of the Howard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison years.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 11 April 2023  

The opposition to the voice is just more of the same. Dutton says no to please his party. The real statesman would have said I support it, if you want me to stay and fight for the party you will support it to. I am sure not all Liberal supports are bigots, but now it just looks that way. Shame Dutton shame!

PETER WALSH | 12 April 2023  

Yes, I will vote yes; but no, not because of constitutionality. That stuff is not for me, I went to a tech school. I must learn from human experience: my own, in this case. It happened a few years after we had joined the great Australian Story, by then I had learnt English. We lived in the outskirts of Melbourne, sewerage had not yet come and our street was a dirt road. We were surrounded by old Australian working class families. Our neighbor had served in North Africa and was once a war enemy of my father. Then, they drank rough homemade wine and strong coffee in one another’s company.

Opposite us lived Mrs G. She was a powerful old Australian woman. We kids of whatever race and religion lived in absolute terror of her. Any football or cricket ball that ended up in her front yard was declared dead. One day Mrs G walked across the street with a bundle of clothes under her arm, walked through our gate and knocked on the door. She politely asked to talk to our mother. In those pre-Whitlam days we migrant children were translators to our parents. Mrs G said she had seen we were a large family, her children had outgrown the clothes and was sure my mother could modify them for us. The two women seemed to connect beyond the separation of language. Maybe they became connected by motherhood.

If Mrs G could walk across the dirt road to say “welcome” I can walk across the dirt road to say “yes”.

Fosco | 12 April 2023  

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