Peter Dutton is set to become opposition leader — another loudmouth, steadfast, blokey white man (and also allegedly a member of the “big swinging dicks” club) to front the party, showing the Liberals learnt absolutely nothing from their election loss.
But there is one candidate the Liberal Party has overlooked: outgoing foreign affairs minister Marise Payne.
Although Payne would have faced a number of hurdles. For one, she’s in the Senate and would need to move to a NSW House of Representatives seat. She’s also someone who could prove to Australia the party truly plans to do things differently.
Why Dutton is a dud
The Liberal Party needs a total overhaul if it is to have any chance of winning back the many voters it lost in the “unlosable” election. This could have been a chance to install someone with a different leadership style — someone able to bring factions together and avoid divisiveness, conflict and name-calling. Someone who, while a moderate, holds core Liberal values, from staying out of Australians’ lives to supporting strong national security.
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Dutton scraped back into his seat of Dickson, suffering a 3% swing to Labor, and is one of the most high-profile Liberals still in Parliament.
But Dutton is risky: he’s clear in what he stands for and isn’t shy about communicating it, with his hardline stance on refugee and welfare policies making him popular among conservatives. This also means Dutton won’t be able to adapt to emerging issues and will struggle to appeal to those with nuanced opinions.
He’s also not likely to appeal to anyone who isn’t white (a big concern given nearly 30% of Australia’s population was born overseas) after his gross comments about African gangs, Lebanese migrants and even New Zealanders. His fearmongering about China’s militarisation also isn’t likely to win back any Chinese-Australians who swung to Labor. His response to Brittany Higgins’ rape allegation — calling it a “he said, she said” issue — also isn’t likely to do much to win back women.
Payne offers quiet diplomacy
The longest-serving female senator in Australian history, Payne is a career politician through and through — something that would have worked in her favour.
In many ways, Payne would have been well positioned to rebuild the bridge between Liberal conservatives and moderates. She is a moderate, taking a stand against her party on issues around women’s rights, Indigenous rights, drug law reform and detention of illegal immigrants.
Her appointment could have helped bridge the divide between the NSW Liberals and the federal branch after Morrison’s gung-ho attempt at intervening to resolve a factional feud. Payne’s partner, Stuart Ayres, is the deputy leader of the NSW Liberals.
But more than her connection and ideals, it’s Payne’s style that would have appealed to voters. Australians showed they were sick of conflict and name-calling, warming to Albanese’s promise to end the “us and them” rhetoric. She’s clear in her communication style and is always across her briefs, addressing journalists with measure.
In her role in Defence and Foreign Affairs, Payne has been lauded as an excellent negotiator, gaining respect among high-profile officials with her mediation style. While “outspoken” across her early career, she’s kept a low profile in recent years, preferring to work behind the scenes — most notably and shamefully as the minister for women. She was completely missing when the mistreatment of women in Parliament House came to light — and, like Morrison, she refused to meet with March4Justice protesters.
But she was also a woman in the Morrison cabinet — given the former PM’s tendency to drag dissenters into closed-door meetings, publicity might not have helped Payne in developing policies (though would have helped women feel heard).
Payne is not without controversy. She has been criticised for not travelling to the Solomon Islands as it struck a security deal with China; for not resettling Afghan interpreters and other locals who helped the Australian Defence Force and faced death for doing so; for being unable to evacuate Australians in Wuhan in China; for not telling France that Australia was scrapping the submarines deal.
Logistically, appointing Payne would have been a nightmare. She’d have to switch to the House of Representatives before being able to make a leadership bid, winning a byelection and scoring a seat from another NSW Liberal — of which there are few.
And politicians who transfer from the Senate to the lower house don’t always fare well — it was a career-killer for Bronwyn Bishop (though worked out OK for Barnaby Joyce).
But after four years of a smug, smirking prime minister who put little thought into his choice of words, who was often insulting and insensitive and who pissed off a lot of people with his conservative views, a measured, thoughtful Payne might have been the refresher the Liberals needed.
Of course, that’s if she stays in politics. She may prefer to retire rather than finish another term.
Who will be deputy?
Sussan Ley looks likely to become Dutton’s deputy, although Jane Hume is another frontrunner. Outgoing home affairs minister Karen Andrews and Liberal moderate Bridget Archer have said they’ll consider running for deputy leader of a Dutton-led party.
Anne Ruston and Michaelia Cash are also possibilities for the deputy leader role. A partyroom ballot will be held by mid June.