CHRISTOPHER DORE: What’s driving Anthony Albanese and Labor’s obsession with Peter Dutton?

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Christopher Dore
The Nightly
6 Min Read
Peter Dutton is living rent-free in the Albanese Government’s head, writes Christopher Dore.
Peter Dutton is living rent-free in the Albanese Government’s head, writes Christopher Dore. Credit: The Nightly

For a bloke Labor believe is utterly unelectable, the Albanese Government sure can’t shut up about Peter Dutton.

They are obsessed with the guy.

Within a day of Jim Chalmers delivering a big election-busting Budget — a multi-billion dollar, inflation-tickling cost-of-living cure coupled with a big bankable handout-heavy vision for the future — they had switched off, moved on.

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Much more interesting to talk about Dutton. Like anyone in Australia wants to talk about Peter effing Dutton. He’s the big boofy bloke leading the mob of no-hopers not in power. The fella with absolutely no capacity to do anything remotely useful for any of us, any time soon.

No one in Australia, and it really is no one, could care less right now about Peter Dutton. Except Anthony Albanese, Jim Chalmers, Jason Clare, Chris Bowen … and the rest of that group so quaintly called The Government.

Albanese was so incensed, just three days after the Budget, about “chaotic Peter Dutton”, he went on a weird, out of the blue, rant about “fixing the mess that Peter Dutton left”, particularly when he was, apparently, the health minister. Ten years ago. Back then, just in case any of us remembered enough to forget, Dutton “trashed Medicare”, threatened to “wreck bulk-billing and free Medicare forever”, “did more damage in one budget in history”. This was a decade ago. Who knew Peter Dutton was health minister. And really, like WTF. “What a joke Peter Dutton is”, “the media need to hold Peter Dutton to account for his failure to be honest and upfront with the Australian people”.

Albanese is miles ahead of Dutton in all the polls on the various measures that rate the leaders on a personal level. Albanese, two years into his prime ministership, has never lost a Newspoll. Comfortably ahead. It’s true barely one third of voters selected Labor to govern in 2022, and even fewer would today, but still, Albanese is travelling well enough, in polling at least, to not really get too worked up about his opposite number.

Minister for Molasses Jason Clare kicked off the Budget week pile-on during Sunrise. Dutton was a “nothing burger”, with “lots of aggro but no detail”. Clare is always reliably adding mayo to his zingers.

EV boy Chris Bowen, the Sun King, the Wind Generator, jumped in: “I’ll have to update my pecuniary interest register. I’m living rent free in Peter Dutton’s head.” It’s so dumb that it’s funny. The bloke Tanya Plibersek once called Voldemort is haunting the lot of them.

Even the Treasurer who by the end of his big week landed on the ABC’s top political analysis program, Insiders, where rather than focus on his Budget to this oh-so discerning Sunday morning audience of Labor voters, Chalmers decided to bang on about, guess what? Peter Dutton!

Anyone silly enough to tune in tends to watch in awe, marvelling at the patience and temperament of legendary, and sensible, political journalist Phil Coorey, wedged as he is between the preposterous ABC chief political correspondent Laura Tingle and the pomposity of Nine Entertainment (nee Fairfax)’s Peter Hartcher.

Tingle, the ABC’s No.1 staffer, the head of Labor’s unofficial taxpayer-funded press gallery PR unit, the flag bearer for the Canberra Left now that The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy has been formally seconded into the Albanese office, turned her barbed brow to the Chalmers Budget, yes? No. Tingle really wanted to talk about, you guessed it, Peter Dutton, and his “pretty shoddy effort” in the anachronistic but traditional Budget in reply speech, which is nothing but a silly construct whereby the opposition leader talks in the vaguest terms possible about stuff they might do, maybe, if they ever could, but probably wouldn’t because, well they’re not the Government.

Australian Opposition Leader Peter Dutton acknowledges the public galleries after delivering his 2024-25 Budget Reply speech in the House of Representatives, Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Peter Dutton is well-known, but not well-liked. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

But no Tingle was taking it all very seriously. Dutton’s speech, in which he promised to reduce migration to help tame the pressure on housing demand, a very basic and uncontroversial economic concept, which happens to be very popular, was “really disturbing”, and didn’t “make coherent sense”, and was “very dangerous to our community”.

The absurdity of the debate about the Coalition’s take on migration is that insofar as policy is concerned it’s identical to the Government’s take on migration. They’re in furious agreement. They’re just haggling over numbers. Both believe migration needs to be cut. Too much stress on infrastructure. Too much pressure on housing.

When Dutton says it, it’s “divisive”, “very dangerous politics”, a “populist and misleading piece of political mischief”. When Labor talks about it, it’s modest, and necessary. And Scott Morrison’s fault.

Cue Chalmers: here we have an Opposition Leader “whose primary objective is to divide the community”. “His Budget reply was dark and divisive, intentionally so, and the net effect of all of that would be he would destroy the Budget and damage the economy. This is what happens when you have got arguably the most divisive Opposition Leader in memory.”

That’s right. Peter Dutton. The guy not in the Lodge, the one very unlikely to be in the Lodge after the next election for the not insubstantial reason that the numbers just don’t add up for a Coalition victory. The road back in one term, an historic impossibility at the best of times, is just not a thing. This election, also not due for a year, is about Anthony Albanese. Which is exactly why Labor wants to talk about Peter Dutton. Albanese, the teals and the Greens are the real story. Dutton will claw back seats from Labor, but not enough. This election will be about what Labor is going to do, most likely in minority, governing with the help of whichever half-friendly face it can find kicking around the cross benches.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MAY 15: Opposition Leader Peter Dutton arrives and walks behind Prime Minister of Australia, Anthony Albanese during post budget media interviews at Parliament House on May 15, 2024 in Canberra, Australia. Australia's Labor government is grappling with a slowing economy, weaker commodity prices, soaring housing costs and a softening labor market. It unveiled its federal budget on May 14. The budget is seen as a key opportunity for the Labor government to deliver broad economic support that analysts say is fundamental to re-election chances next year. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton arrives and walks behind Anthony Albanese during post-Budget media interviews. Credit: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

Is Dutton ever likely to be prime minister?

What’s true is he is well-known, but not well-liked.

In 1996, John Howard was well-known, but not well-liked. He won because his opponent was despised.

Tony Abbott, in 2013, was well-known but not well-liked either. He won because his opponent was despised.

Bill Shorten wasn’t well-known or well-liked in 2019. His opponent was not well known, but very lucky.

Albanese was not well known in 2022, but he had an advantage. Voters were neutral on him. He won because his opponent redefined the definition of despised.

Two years into his time in office, Albanese is better known, not well understood but Australians are still kinda neutral. Which is his best asset. Voters don’t care enough about him one way or another.

Dutton is now well-known, not well-liked, but well-understood. He has a brand. There is clarity to his image. And that is ultimately electable, at the right time.

Albanese does not have a strong brand. It’s almost as if Australians don’t care enough about politics anymore, and certainly don’t care about Albanese, one way or another. Hard to love. Hard to hate. He sort of just is what he is, and it’s a bit, well, whatever. Bland.

Does anyone care about him and Jodie? Nup. They really don’t. Couldn’t care less. We’re not even a little bit intrigued. Don’t know how you met, don’t care. Don’t know what she does. Also don’t care. First wife? Do. Not. Care. She’s no Hazel. And Jodie is no Blanche. We kinda have better things to do. Good on him for going around again, sure. But, mate, we really don’t want to know. No disrespect.

Dutton, well we don’t really want to know about him or his family either. It’s not on brand. We just want to know him as that no bull...t kinda guy. Not pretty. But pretty straight up and down. Love him or hate him. He is what he is and if we are in the mood, maybe he gets a chance, at some point.

It really comes down to whether enough people could be bothered voting Albanese out. No one anytime soon is going to be rushing to the polls to elect Dutton the prime minister.

But at some point, the patience with Albanese will wear thin.

For now, most likely, most people will be resigned to living with what we’ve got. Until we’re absolutely fed up.

And it’s time to give the other bloke a go.

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