BRISBANE: Australia’s conservatives control the ruling Liberal Party and occupy key positions in government, but a week out from tight elections their talisman has gone into hiding and the movement is on the back foot.
Unsmiling, uncompromising and polarising, 48-year-old former policeman and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was front and centre of Australian politics, until now.
Amid a closely fought election battle that the opposition Labour Party is on track to win, Dutton — the darling of hard-right Liberals — has all but disappeared from the national view and is fighting to save his seat in parliament.
It is just one sign of how difficult the terrain has become for Australia’s mainstream conservatives, stuck between moderates moving to the left and a globally inspired populist movement.
For much of the last year, Dutton’s faction in the ruling Liberal-National coalition had been in the ascendancy.
Buoyed by the success of politicians like Donald Trump they ousted moderate prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a party coup, tightened their grip on immigration policy and took control of Australia’s domestic spy agency.
Dutton had carried himself with a swagger, unflinchingly espousing strident views and defending Australia’s policies of sending asylum seekers to remote Pacific camps.
He boycotted a national apology to indigenous children taken from their families, joked with climate-hit Pacific Islanders about “water lapping at your door”, and told business leaders to “stick to their knitting” when they supported same-sex marriage.
All of this made him a hero to conservatives, who narrowly missed out on making him Liberal leader and prime minister.
Former PM and Liberal heavyweight John Howard recently praised Dutton as a genuine and hardworking politician whose “strong values and resolve” as Home Affairs Minister has “kept all Australians safer”.
Ahead of the 2019 election, Dutton had been expected to lead the charge as the Liberal-Nationals, who are one party in his home state of Queensland, try to win back votes lost to the anti-immigration One Nation party.
But with the Liberals also trying to court moderate voters in the more progressive southern state of Victoria amid fears of a landslide loss there, Dutton — a lightning rod for left-wing anger — has taken a back seat, mostly shunning the media spotlight.
Dutton weaponized by left
Polls show Dutton in a close race in his constituency of Dickson, which he and the Liberals have held for almost 20 years.
Dickson — on the northern outskirts of Brisbane and where growing suburbia encroaches on semi-rural properties — has been a bellwether of Queensland, with past results closely reflecting the state’s overall result.
The seat encompasses a vast mix of socioeconomic groups, with further change in recent years as the area draws in younger professionals.
Dutton’s main challenger on May 18 is Labour’s former journalist and amputee Ali France.
He also faces activists who have vowed to shake up Australian politics.
Prominent progressive group GetUp is trying to make the left more organised and targeting key conservatives like Dutton and former Liberal PM Tony Abbott on their own turf.
In one of the more affluent parts of Dickson, local GetUp door-knocking volunteers — who have placed Dutton at the top of their hard-right “hit list” — speak passionately about ousting him.
Dutton held on to his seat by a margin of 1.7 per cent — or 1,500 votes — at the last election, so a national swing against the minority government could see him lose the seat.
“What we are trying to instill in people is the idea that this is probably the most important election that you’ll ever face,” volunteer Stewart O’Brien told AFP, as he admitted that Dickson had a reputation for high voter disengagement.
“A 1,000 or 1,500 votes govern your future. Please get engaged, get engaged.”
Labour is also capitalising on Dutton’s perceived toxicity by mentioning him at every opportunity, particularly in Victoria.
Dutton himself expects a close fight, but he has been unwavering in his long-held belief that leaders do not have to be liked, just respected.
“People never spoke about John Howard’s charisma,” he has said of the long-serving former Liberal PM. “At many times during John Howard’s career, he was deeply unpopular.”
He must wait to find out whether voters agree.