23 May, 2024
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Is Dutton quietly confident of surviving Aston result?


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The upcoming Aston by-election is shaping to be a topsy-turvy affair – but could it upend the leadership of Peter Dutton and a century of political history? Or could it prove he is immune to normal political consequences?

Officially the ALP has been campaigning hard in the outer Melbourne seat only in the expectation it will be dealt a noble loss in keeping with historical trends.

By-elections do not favour governments. The last time they won one was in 1920 and over the last 35 years they have produced an average swing of 5.1 per cent against the government.

But one Labor source told TND a poll of the seat had shown a swing towards the government – a finding that has buoyed Labor coming into the campaign.

That is denied by senior figures in the party’s campaign – and that is why some Liberals are so worried.

A Labor win?

The source would not be drawn on the figures for the poll or the usual measures included when such research is published. But for a seat hanging on a margin of 2.8 per cent even a slender swing would the by-election start as an ultra-marginal contest with a once-in-a-century event not entirely inconceivable from there.

How much is anyone on the ground drawing from these conclusions? It depends.

“The polling commissioned has not been extensive enough for us to know,” a senior figure in the party said, pouring cold water on queries from TND.

A senior Liberal MP offered this rejoinder: “Bulls–t”.

Recent visits to the electorate by Mr Albanese including this week with his Minister for Skills and Training (including TAFE) and Childcare show they are playing to win and not skimping on research, the seasoned campaigner reckons.

But it was only last November that state election polling seemed to get things badly wrong.

Some Liberals make an extraordinary concession about their anxiety and are talking down Labor’s chances even if their ultimate goal on Saturday is beating expectations.

“It’s about local issues and road funding cuts, no one is hearing anything about Labor (being rewarded) by voters,” says one federal MP.

Cost-of-living, like the recent NSW state poll, is the main issue for voters but not in the usual way that prompts anti-government anger. Labor is making the issue the centre of its own campaign which advertises a coming discount to TAFE and childcare now months away.

“It’s a very unusual by-election,” agrees veteran campaign pollster John Utting.

He notes that Peter Dutton’s recent media appearances in the seat – in contrast to less progressive NSW where the state government placed him in protective custody for a recent campaign – lack the commanding air of a leader on the hustings.

“Vote for the (local MP…) and get Peter Dutton,” a mobile Labor attack billboard at last week’s state election read.

Mr Dutton was presented as a sinister and diminished bogeyman leaning out from a pure black backdrop.

It’s kept Labor ahead in the seat of Ryde (Chinese ancestry 19 per cent) and on the same turf as Bennelong, one of the seats where Mr Dutton’s comments about “preparing for war” were rejected by Chinese voters in May.

In Aston where there are twice as many people of Chinese descent (15 per cent) as the state average and advertising is not so limited, the government will test whether he has changed his image from his days as defence minister.

Sometimes campaigns are like the mystery Sherlock Holmes solved by noticing the dog that didn’t bark, Mr Utting says.

Mr Dutton, the government has alleged in question time recently, is  keeping a low profile while otherwise doing as little as is needed to avoid claims there are large parts of Australia where he is seriously unpopular (a potential long-term hurdle in his line of work).

The Labor caucus heard on Tuesday that Mr Dutton had been “in hiding” and if he secured anything less than the median 5 per cent swing toward him he will have failed.

One almost suspects Mr Albanese may be setting up his opposite number for failure of historic proportions with this choice of benchmark.

Mr Dutton has made a show of not reacting in Parliament and has sat placidly in his chair as the government takes on questions about the by-election with growing zeal in question time this week.

‘Who else?’

One Liberal MP not thought to be in his core group of supporters says that Mr Dutton’s leadership will roll on completely unaffected by whatever happens in Aston.

“He’s rock solid,” they said. “Who else is there?”

Some of the only credible options with any name recognition are women in the upper house.

The party’s leader serving in the Senate would be a break with convention but the office of Opposition Leader is in its own way a newfangled addition first recognised in parliament in 1920).

Mr Utting says there is no escaping what a loss would mean when the Victorian Liberals are engulfed in scandal, the NSW electorate has thrown out the party and interest rates are at recent records.

“There’s always no alternative until there is one,” he said.

Other Liberals tell TND they are pessimistic but expect to limp over the line in the face of attacks on candidate Roshena Campbell who is a whip smart newspaper columnist but who files from Brunswick.

Labor’s Mary Doyle herself lives next door to the electorate but she has a familiar local story as a cancer survivor and previous candidate.

The ultimate question is how much did the 11-point primary swing the party withstood in May leave for a further rejection by the party, Liberals reckon.

“Was it Scott? Was it women? Was it integrity?” the Liberal MP queried.

“We took a big hit and it’s a question of how far from that we are in voters’ minds.”

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