Watching results on Saturday night, my chief thought was less ‘Who’s going to win?’ than, rather, ‘Thank God that’s over.’
As this is written (Monday afternoon), few uncertainties remain in the final House of Representatives make-up. With the last postal votes not in until Friday 3 June, some formal declarations may be delayed. However, most things are clear: Labor will take office with a majority; therefore, the despicable Climate 200 ‘teals’, despite winning seven seats, will have no power whatsoever over the government; the Greens, who have increased their numbers in the Senate (as well as, deplorably, the House) will have their collective feet on Anthony Albanese’s throat; and Scott Morrison has bowed out, saying he ‘will be handing over the leadership at the next Liberal party meeting’.
The full frightfulness of an Albanese government will emerge over time. By contrast, on the other side an immediate question arises – who will now lead the Coalition? Insofar as this matter was canvassed before Saturday night, it was widely agreed there were only two candidates – then treasurer Josh Frydenberg and minister for defence Peter Dutton. Both ministers were then being threatened in Kooyong and Dickson respectively. Seasoned campaigner that he is, Dutton has survived; but Frydenberg has just conceded he has lost.
With Frydenberg gone and Dutton now set to replace Morrison, dissent is already emerging among the Liberal ‘moderates’ (aka the bedwetters). Senator Simon Birmingham went so far on Sunday as to suggest the Liberals ‘may have to split into two parties’! With their champion (Josh) gone, lamentations of this kind will doubtless continue. I therefore propose to examine the respective merits of Frydenberg (had he survived) and Dutton.
Among the political pundits (most of them Labor voters anyway), Frydenberg was clearly favoured, as he would have been by the ‘moderates’. As the parliamentary party majority in 2018, they elected Morrison when Malcolm Turnbull was challenged, at last, by Dutton. The latter, by contrast, is usually described as ‘the hard man of the Right’ – that is, that most feared of beings by the ‘moderates’, a real conservative. A Frydenberg victory, then, would have been likely. To put that another way, the parliamentary party would have repeated its 2018 error and, again, chosen the wrong man. All those ‘Quiet Australians’ (including those who have drifted away to give allegiance to minor parties – Liberal Democrats, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, even Clive Palmer’s UAP) would have heaved a sigh of regret. I would have been among them.
Why do I say this? I harbour no personal dislike of Josh. While not a friend of his, I certainly don’t regard him as an enemy. Indeed, you would be hard put to find anyone in either the Liberal or Labor parliamentary parties who saw him as such. And that was precisely what pointed to his weakness as a putative leader; anyone aspiring to become prime minister (or the even tougher role of leader of the opposition) must be able to say ‘No’. By contrast, one reason why Josh became so popular was by lending a too receptive ear to the appeals put before him. That wouldn’t do in a leader.
In thinking about what each man brings to the contest, one should reflect upon their respective lifetime backgrounds, their relative parliamentary experience and their portfolio performances to date. When you do, Dutton wins by the proverbial country mile. Both men are of an age (50 and 51 respectively) and both are married with children. But that’s where resemblances end. Frydenberg, raised in Kew (among Melbourne’s richest suburbs), epitomises the ‘gilded youth’, whereas Dutton, a Brisbane suburban builder’s son, came up the hard way. Frydenberg, with scholarships to Oxford and Harvard, clearly outstrips Dutton academically (Bachelor of Business from QUT). But while Josh was spending three years articled in Melbourne’s leading law firm, and then six years with inner-city Deutsche Bank, Dutton was learning about the real world in Queensland’s police force. Starting as a police constable, he finished ten years later as a detective senior constable, with drug squad and vice squad experience – while also working in his father’s construction business. In short, while Frydenberg was growing up among the elites, Dutton was immersed in ‘struggle street’. Who do you think became better equipped to govern Australia? Score Dutton 1, Frydenberg 0.
As to parliamentary experience, there is really no contest. Elected in 2001, by 2013 (when Frydenberg was first elected) Dutton was already entering Cabinet, initially as minister for health and sport. Quickly promoted to immigration and border protection, four years later he metamorphosed into the new ‘super’ ministry of home affairs. Three years later again he became Minister for Defence – the first effective one for many years – and Leader of the House. And Frydenberg? Four years as a ministerial adviser in Canberra, then (after time out with Deutsche Bank) entering Parliament and becoming a minister (resources, energy and northern Australia) in 2015 under Turnbull. Promoted into Cabinet as Minister for the Environment and Energy, his performance left much to be desired, but he obviously made lots of friends.
In August 2018, after Turnbull’s dismissal, he was elected deputy leader and chose to become treasurer, where he has remained. On his performance there, opinions differ (sharply). On parliamentary experience, then, score Dutton 1, Frydenberg half a point, and on portfolio performance, score Dutton 1, Frydenberg another half point (at best). Overall, Dutton wins in a canter.
The bottom line is this: from their election wreckage, the good Lord has so arranged matters that, under Dutton’s leadership (and predictably, with a lot of help from Albanese), the Liberals now have the capacity to recover their lost conservative ground. So dry your tears, snowflakes. All is not lost; on the contrary, the Liberals’ recovery should now begin.
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