Australia’s new Liberal party leader vows to look after ‘forgotten people’

Peter Dutton, a former defence minister and staunch conservative, has been elected Australia’s opposition leader, promising to represent the “forgotten people” in the outer suburbs and shift his Liberal party’s focus from big to small business.

Analysts said that it was unlikely that Dutton, who was elected unopposed on Monday, would move the party back towards the centre despite the Liberals’ heavy poll defeat under Scott Morrison on May 21.

Dutton will lead a coalition with the rural National party, which elected former agriculture minister David Littleproud to replace climate sceptic Barnaby Joyce as its leader. Littleproud, a moderate in the Nationals, will be deputy opposition leader. Collectively, the coalition holds 57 seats in Australia’s lower house.

Labor, meanwhile, held 75 seats on Monday afternoon, one short of an outright majority, with results yet to be called in three constituencies. Failure to win a majority would force Labor under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to negotiate with independents and the Greens.

Dutton has cultivated a reputation as an ardent rightwinger during his 21 years in parliament. As immigration minister, he took a tough line on asylum seekers, drawing criticism in 2016 for describing them as “illiterate and innumerate”.

As defence minister, he warned Australia to “prepare for war” with China and said Australian troops would defend Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army invaded the island.

But Dutton has also been praised for his “polite” and warm personal manner that has maintained his popularity within the party and his Brisbane constituency. One Liberal colleague said the former policeman was “well-read, has a beautiful family and a soft heart. Australian voters will be very surprised by the Peter Dutton they will see.”

John Warhurst, emeritus professor of politics at Australia National University, said Dutton was a “very capable, experienced politician” who had a “deserved reputation as a hard warrior in politics and a conservative man generally”.

“Whether he’s close enough to the centre to win back disaffected Liberal party voters remains to be seen,” he said, adding that Dutton’s comments on Monday had demonstrated a “deafness towards the climate change issue and the other issues the independents were raising”.

The Liberal-National coalition dropped 18 seats at the election, with surprise losses in traditionally safe Liberal seats in wealthy inner-city suburbs to pro-climate, pro-business “teal” independent candidates.

Former Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, regarded as a moderate and a possible future party leader, was the most high-profile casualty of the “teal wave”, which exploited the Morrison government’s perceived weak climate policy and its treatment of women. This led moderate Liberals to call for a return to the centre to win back educated, wealthy white-collar voters.

But Dutton said the Liberal party would not prioritise that segment of the electorate.

“All I want to do is to make sure that we don’t forget about those in the suburbs — and I do think they are the forgotten people, I do think those people in small business and microbusiness feel that the system is against them. And I want to be a voice for them,” he said.

Dutton did not signal any shift on climate policy, continuing his predecessor’s focus on power bills rather than carbon emissions. “We’ll support policies which aren’t going to turn the lights off in small businesses,” he said.

Source: Financial Times

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