When the Left Just Doesn’t Get It

Australia’s centre-left so often underestimates the centre-right that its advocates and publicists in the mainstream media simply cannot comprehend what motivates a politician with a conservative agenda and principles. Predictably, given the inroads the polls suggest Coalition is making, the current subject is Peter Dutton — ‘target’ would be a better word — of the latest Quarterly Essay, “Bad Cop”. If you want a blinkered analysis spiced with bitchy contempt, author Lech Blaine, who underestimates his subject at every turn, provides it.

As Blaine would have his readers see it, Dutton’s life has been that of the ugly duckling, beginning with his childhood in Boondall, Queensland, then his career as a policeman and, finally, as a conservative politician and opposition leader. How someone born and raised so far from the conservative purple could have risen so high intrigues Blaine when it doesn’t baffle him. It’s all a matter of degree, he tells himself and us. Robert Menzies was ‘Highbrow’, you see, and far too moderate for the current iteration of the Party. John Howard led the ‘Middlebrow Liberals’, and now the ‘Lowbrow Liberals’ of Peter Dutton are in charge. Because original thought can be difficult for some, the Quarterly‘s hatchet man brands him an “authoritarian” and — surprise! surprise! — likens him to Donald Trump. While Trump is loved by Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables’, writes Blaine, “Dutton has his dinosaurs and dickheads.” It isn’t the only time words fail the author.

Throw off the leftoid mindset and consider the laughable proposition that Dutton is Trump Down Under (but with less hair). Were that the case, the Liberal Party would be latching on to the populist moment, as did Trump in 2016. In the Australia context, such a shift is inconceivable in the context of the mainstream centre-right. If you want populism in Australia look not to the Liberals but to One Nation and others. On gay marriage, the Voice and other contentious issues, the Liberals have been all over the shop. That a party only recently led by Malcolm Turnbull, at whose suggestion the Guardian began publishing in Australia, might take up pitchforks and flaming brands is the sort of paranoid fantasy that, to put it succinctly, one would need to be a leftist to embrace

Having failed to understand the nature of the Liberal Party, Blaine puts Dutton on the couch for a bit of  psychoanalysis before turning to genealogy. We learn Dutton is a descendant of Richard James Coley, who served as Queensland’s first Sergeant-in-Arms and, as Blaine notes, gave evidence confirming a massacre of Aborigines. His great-great grandfather, Charles Dutton, looked after Indigenous Australians and provided them with a safe haven. Is the imputation that the opposition leader is several rungs below that of his more noble ancestors? If that thought diminishes your respect for the latest in the long line of Duttons, Blaine won’t be in the least disappointed.

The shallow, overwrought attempt at diagnosing Dutton’s political psychology, in part by way genetic descent, is not the essay’s main feature of interest, for Blaine’s screed reveals much more about the general ineptitude of the Left in analysing their centre-right opponents. “Bad Cop” observes the Liberal Party through the cracked lens of someone who would never, could never, vote Liberal. When you notice who’s being quoted and cited, a pattern emerges. Bridget Archer, a moderate and habitual crosser-of-the-floor, is described as ‘marginalised’ in the Trumpian upheaval Blaine fancies is going on under Dutton. Yet here again the evidence contradicts the contention of rampant populism in the party room. Archer loudly supported the Voice, yet her electorate of Bass voted only 38 per in favour. It’s a strange sort of populism when a politician is at odds with her electorate! Matt Kean, former NSW Treasurer and greener-than-the-Greens environmental minister, also and predictably gets a loving mention. If anything, these players demonstrate not populist sentiments but the party establishment’s tendency to govern as Labor-Lite.

According to Malcolm Turnbull, even more condescending that usual, Dutton is not “an original thinker, and he does not have a positive idea.” Original thought, presumably, involves calling a double dissolution when there is no such need, entering the election with Tony Abbott’s 13-seat majority and losing 12 of them. The Liberal Party, while generally disagreeable in Blaine’s view, might yet undergo a moral redemption were it to heed the sorts he prefers — the Turnbulls, Archers and Maria Kokavic, another moderate who also gets a Quarterly Essay tongue bath.

Why did the Coalition lose the 2022 election? As I have written elsewhere, the short answer is the lack of a direct policy agenda, the same approach which contributed so much to the Howard government’s success and longevity. As Scott Hargraeves, of the Institute of Public Affairs, puts it, “if the Liberals are to win back the government they need to earn that right.” This is a call to get back to basics. Fighting the culture war is important, and there are certainly gains to be had. After all, how many Australians support biological men competing against women, ruinous energy prices for no environmental gains and massive migration in the midst of a housing shortage? Beyond this, a proactive policy agenda vastly expands the chance of reaching a broader voter base and winning back the government benches.

In terms of policy, Dutton has presented a promising agenda. Consider his endorsement of nuclear power, an issue that should unite all Liberal ideological factions. Moderates concerned about climate change can rest easy that the most emission-free energy source of all will keep the lights on. The public embrace of nuclear energy has been slowly and steadily emerging, beginning with the AUKUS alliance and the promise of nuclear submarines. Dutton should be given credit for opening the debate to a wider public, even as he faces a large backlash from the nuke-phobic Left.

Dutton’s biggest achievement so far, his successful campaign against the Voice, shows he is capable of being proactive in indigenous affairs. His clear opposition to the Voice put the Liberal Party in stark contrast with Labor. While we have not seen a full blueprint of his agenda for indigenous Australia, the Voice campaign and resulting victory represents a substantial step forward, the ultimate hope being for reforms that actually help those most in need, rather than the rent seekers, urgers and urban elites who would have been the Voice’s prime beneficiaries.

Naturally, Blaine throws scorn at each of these displays of leadership while parroting the myths and misrepresentations the Left finds so comforting whenever it loses. The No camp played unfairly, he writes, accusing the Advance group of disseminating that dreaded “misinformation” in its campaign against the Voice. There’s no evidence that this claim is true, nor does Blaine provide any. There is, however, plenty of evidence that, when the Left doesn’t get its way, it will be attributed to evil forces manipulating the minds of the electorate’s simpletons.

While the chances of the Liberal Party being elected after one term are far from certain, the Coalition has been gathering momentum the Albanese government totts up failure after failure. Dutton has successfully agitated about inflation and the the cost of living, the lack of affordable housing, and Australia’s accelerating hypermodernity, from gender ideology to woke corporatism.

Perhaps Dutton’s biggest strength, which Blaine admits through gritted teeth, is his soft side. Dutton appears a hard-case politician, but Blaine refuses to buy this, concluding his essay with the parting shot that he is “small and scared.” This speaks more of the author than his subject. You may disagree with Dutton’s past and present tactics, even his policies. You might find something untenable with his leadership style. But one thing you can’t deny is that Dutton’s stance on a variety of issues resonates with common-sense voters

Sadly, there being none so blind as those who refuse to see, the author of this Quarterly Essay is most unlikely ever to figure that out.

7 thoughts on “When the Left Just Doesn’t Get It

  • Podargus says:

    Normally governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them. The present government is well on the way out. The publication in question is just another attempt by its supporters to prop up the corpse in a standing position.
    Dutton has proposed some sensible policies. He needs to continue that course and keep the Liberal wet faction from its customary sabotage.

    • Bernie Masters says:

      I agree – oppositions don’t win government; governments lose government – but this truism has one condition attached: the opposition must convince electors that it has the wherewithal to be a competent government. To date, the Albanese government seems to be doing enough to lose the support of a majority of electors but I suspect people are still waiting to make up their mind about Dutton and his team.

  • Stephen says:

    Who cares what Quarterly Essay says any way. I’ve looked at it occasionally but few people have even heard of it. As for Blaine’s article probably more people have read this article and the article in the Australian criticising it than would have read the original.

  • pmprociv says:

    I haven’t read Blaine’s essay yet, and this review ensures that situation won’t change. However, it truly sounds like Blaine has not only scraped the bottom of the barrel clean, but then groped well beneath it, in trying to disparage Dutton’s image. So ironic, though, when he picks on Dutton’s ancestry and police career, while so many of our contemporary “Labour” leaders couldn’t be more divorced from the working class, never having done a fair day’s real work in their lives.

  • Ranald Moore says:

    Pleasing to see the left “still don’t get it”. At least the can be relied upon in that regard.
    I wonder how many times the ordinary Australian voters have to demonstrate they don’t live in a leftist bubble for the left to get the message.

  • Libertarian says:

    The Liberal Party is unelectable whilst Matt Kean is still a member, especially so if he succeeds in winning pre selection for a federal seat.

  • Greg Lloyd says:

    Well at least Dutton actually listens to questions he is asked and answers them after consideration. Compare that to Albanese who just parrots some rehearsed mantra or reads something out written by others.

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