As I foreshadowed at the time, Peter Dutton in 2018 did not reap the reward of his assault on Malcolm Turnbull. But yesterday, almost four years later, the parliamentary Liberal Party elected him unopposed as its leader – although the job no longer carries with it the title of prime minister, only leader of the opposition.
Most of the commentary on this event consists of advice to the Liberal Party on what direction it should take: to the right, assumed to be with Dutton, or to the centre, with some less than obvious alternative. Advice of this nature would seem fairly superfluous. Anyone who thinks that the result of 21 May calls for a further shift to the right is clearly impervious to advice or evidence of any sort.
But there are two other strands in the commentary that are worth remarking on. One comes from the left, and argues that Dutton’s accession as leader is a good thing because it will make the Liberal Party unelectable for the duration, leading to a bigger Labor majority next time around and a mandate for more progressive policies.
I think this is a dangerous line of argument, partly because I recall very much the same things being said back in 2009 about Tony Abbott. That turned out to be a gross miscalculation: instead of keeping the Liberals in the wilderness for a generation, Abbott set them up for nine years in power.
Even if you can produce compelling reasons why Dutton is a different case from Abbott, it’s wrong to assume that an opposition leader who stays in opposition must therefore be harmless. On the contrary, good government needs a good opposition. Reducing the Liberal Party to irrelevance would not be a step forward, unless it is to be replaced by something more effective – a subject to which the pundits seem not to have given much thought.
The second noteworthy strand of commentary projects a quite different role for Dutton. Precisely because he has such a history and reputation as a right-wing warrior, it is argued, he is the leader best suited to drag the Liberal Party into a more moderate place. Only he would be given the necessary freedom from attacks from his right flank; in the words of what Mr Spock once called “an old Vulcan proverb”, “only Nixon could go to China.”
I think the premise of the argument is true – it describes a genuine phenomenon. Nixon’s background largely protected him from the right-wing backlash that would have greeted an opening to China made by a Democrat president; similarly, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could co-operate in making peace in Northern Ireland because they were already identified with the more intransigent wings of their communities.
So it’s not a foolish idea to think that a reorientation of the Liberal Party towards the centre is going to have to come from a leader with strong right-wing credentials. But they will need more than that: they will need considerable skill, both in understanding what’s required and in the street smarts necessary to pull it off.
And here lies the Liberal Party’s problem. There is zero evidence so far that Dutton, or for that matter anyone else from the hard right who might be thought of as leadership material, has either the intelligence or the tactical skill for this sort of shift. They are unable to see the need to change, and would have no idea how to accomplish it if they did.
Dutton’s shortcoming is not the fact that he comes from the unreconstructed right. It’s the fact that on all accounts he wants to stay there.