Politics Opinion

Both major party leaders damaged by Voice Referendum

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left) and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton (Image by Dan Jensen)

The upcoming Voice Referendum has shown Peter Dutton twisting his own image and Anthony Albanese exhibiting signs of overconfidence, writes Paul Begley.

WHEN THE Liberal-National Party was decimated at the May 2022 Election, the leader deemed responsible for the loss, Scott Morrison, was banished to the backbench where he sits shamelessly 18 months later. He is widely regarded as unemployable, a view supported by his steadfast refusal to stop receiving a welfare payment from the taxpayer that goes by the name of a parliamentary salary.

While Morrison continues to officially represent the neglected voters in the NSW electorate of Cook, the L-NP has been told by more than one election analyst that it is regarded as an out-of-touch “nasty party” that insults the intelligence of voters, is without a vision for the country and has forfeited any sense of its own place in Australia’s national story.

It seems the party of Robert Menzies has lost its soul. Were he alive, the liberal Ming would no longer recognise the party that carries the liberal name but has morphed into a rabble consisting, with a few notable exceptions, of MAGA Trumpers, self-serving property owners and aspiring rich listers, and religious zealots at the loopy end of U.S.-style Christian evangelism.

In the post-election wash-up, the L-NP is left with a leader in Peter Dutton whose main credentials are those of a hard and unforgiving former cop known principally for his relentless determination to ensure that refugees were kept in endlessly prolonged detention. Like Morrison before him, that was how he made his mark among his Liberal Party parliamentary colleagues.

But after assuming the leader’s mantle, he has been desperately trying to look as much as possible like a soft and cuddly Mr Nice Guy. A part of that makeover has involved calling on his wife to deny he is a monster, a denial which achieves the happy result of allowing his more truculent admirers to see enough of the residual monster still in residence.

That said, having partially abandoned the monster persona, he became a man desperate to find an edge to make his title as leader look like it contained some of the elements of leadership, especially ones that appeal to a constituency that likes clear demarcation lines separating strong-man leaders from Left-leaning woke milk-sops.

The solution to his problem has largely been resolved in two parts.

The first part was for Dutton to appear as a winner, or at least as a potential winner. When he emerged as Party Leader in May 2022, he had few options because the small-target Albanese Government presented a narrow range of opportunities to differentiate his greatly diminished Opposition Party from Labor. The L-NP had been roundly beaten and the talent pool that remained was wafer thin, so much so that Sussan Ley was elected Deputy Leader.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had not jettisoned the absurd Morrison Government AUKUS arrangement from its policy platform, so national security was not an opportunity Dutton could mine. Labor had also not repealed the grossly inequitable Morrison Stage 3 tax cuts for the wealthy, so economic management was ruled out as a Dutton tactic.

The one area that presented itself was the issue of an Indigenous Voice that was presented to the Morrison Government as an outcome of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. The then Indigenous Affairs Minister, Ken Wyatt, took the issue approvingly to the Morrison cabinet on two occasions, so in theory Morrison cabinet ministers, Dutton included, were familiar with the proposal. Morrison’s cabinet had not rejected the idea, but it had also not acted on it.

By contrast, to fulfil an election promise, Anthony Albanese took up the proposal and agreed to schedule a referendum for Australians to vote on establishing an Indigenous Voice as a body to advise Parliament on issues that affected First Nation Australians. It was to be advisory only with no power to do other than give advice. The Parliament was required to receive the advice but without any obligation to accept it.

At the time of the 2022 Election, as a Morrison Government left-over issue, the Voice appeared to be bipartisan. But its short history reveals that was not to last.

The second part of the Dutton solution involved creating a leadership persona that ostensibly crafted a unity message by developing an argument that a “Yes” vote in the Referendum would divide Australia along racial lines. Collateral damage attended that solution but it had the advantage of maintaining the strong man image because there is no surer way to present as a strong man than to take on a weak man.

After nearly 250 years of relentless neglect and subjugation, there is no weaker section of the Australian demographic than Indigenous Australians. That said, if they could be successfully labelled as elites, the optics could be shifted: Dutton could emerge as a strong leader, single-handedly conquering the grasping aspirations of a powerful and sinister Black force. A bit tricky, but worth a go.

The solution was a classic Trump move founded on resentment into which Albanese played by allowing the Referendum to be viewed as a Labor issue rather than a First Nations issue that the Labor PM was supporting. In that and other ways, Albanese allowed himself to be characterised as a member of an elite which fed into MAGA-type resentments, and not just the resentment of uneducated angry White males but also of middle-class Australians who were invited to see the Prime Minister in a different light.

By chance, Albanese’s supposedly too-close relationship with Qantas was the flashpoint for much of that resentment. His government inexplicably knocked back a request from Qatar Airlines which would have had the effect of reducing air fares for ordinary travellers during a cost-of-living crisis. Qantas had opposed the Qatar approach and coincidentally had been caught out by the regulator selling tickets for cancelled flights.

Murdoch’s NewsCorp went for broke on Qantas as an elite monopoly engaging in criminal profit-making behaviour at the expense of ordinary Australians, and Albanese was seen to be in the pocket of its CEO, Alan Joyce. NewsCorp had not forgotten that Joyce gave the support of Qantas to the same-sex marriage plebiscite and he was never forgiven for that.

To make matters worse, Albanese’s 23-year-old son was given membership in the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge, a highly desired prize of the aspiring business and political traveller class. Unlike the Qantas Club, Chairman’s Lounge membership is given at the discretion of Qantas rather than by simply paying a member fee and the word was that the CEO took a personal interest in exercising that discretion.

A financially successful gangster can get his kids into the top private schools but access to the Chairman’s Lounge is available only to individuals vetted by opaque criteria at Qantas and populated by the most senior members of the corporate and government class. It is a greatly desired prize for worthy citizens wanting connection to and acceptance by members of that class.

Membership might or might not come near the culmination of a distinguished career, and exclusion from membership may well sow the seeds of resentment for many an ambitious executive type — resentment readily transformable into anger at the thought of an unearned gift by Qantas to a Labor prime minister’s son. The very same prime minister who is trying to persuade voters that there is nothing tricky or elitist behind his support for the “Yes” case at the Voice Referendum.

Although neither major party leader has covered himself with glory during the Referendum campaign, the Prime Minister has at least taken the high road in remaining faithful to the request for a Voice by the authors of the Uluru Statement and his support for the “Yes” case has remained factually based.

The Opposition Leader, on the other hand, has exposed himself to the view that his position is simply one designed to confuse and muddy a proposition that is fundamentally simple in order to score a political win based on sowing unfounded doubts, fears and resentment.

That strategy is a proven way to score short-term wins. It was used by Morrison in 2015 to plant the seed that 800,000 social security recipients were possibly cheating the welfare system, until it was revealed to be untrue and the strategy unravelled to such an extent that criminal charges are likely to follow against those who initiated and implemented it. The strategy was used by the likes of former UK PM Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, resulting in a Brexit Referendum win.

It contributed greatly to the 2016 election win of Trump in the U.S. The tactic was employed with success by former PM Tony Abbott to undermine a rent tax on miners using our land to make mega-profits, to misrepresent a market-based emissions trading scheme as a carbon tax and to unleash unremitting cruelty towards refugees, supposedly to stop them from making dangerous trips to Australia by boat.

Each of these campaigns won short-term battles with the assistance of Murdoch’s media empire, but were seen for what they were with the passing of time and became associated with base politics and losers. In time, Robodebt was deemed unlawful and Brexit is a disaster. Abbott and Morrison were exposed and defeated, and now live in semi-disgrace. And Trump lost the 2020 Presidential Election.

In deciding to embark on a campaign employing those same loser strategies, Dutton may have set himself up for a big fall even if his “No” case wins the Referendum.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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