Ordinary punters have spoken out, Liberals should listen
By The Canberra Times
14 October 2009
(c) 2009 The Canberra Times
It happens quite often that I find myself in a unique position among political pundits. I make one prediction. Everyone else makes the opposite prediction. For example, during 2007 I repeatedly and confidently predicted John Howard would be defeated in Bennelong. I never qualified that prediction. I never hedged my bets. All other pundits either predicted Howard would win again in Bennelong or else hedged their bets. The reason for my confidence on that score is simply explained. I believe that ordinary people are always smarter, more tough-minded and more fair-minded than the political class believes them to be. Thus Bennelong was for me a no- brainer prediction. Ordinary electors knew Howard would resign Bennelong very soon after he won it, if he were to win it. So they saved the taxpayer the cost and the inconvenience of the by-election Howard's win would have brought. It always puzzled me that anyone would give Howard a chance in those circumstances.
The recent controversy surrounding Peter Dutton is looming to be another case of my unique status. Let me quote myself from the two papers in which my articles frequently appear. In my article in The Weekend Australian (''Goalposts shift but Labor safe'', August 22-23, p 22), my pendulum showed Dickson as notionally Labor with the Liberal Party needing a swing of 1.2per cent to win. So Dickson was weakened for the Liberal Party by the new redistribution of seats, but only by 1.4per cent. In that article, I said, ''The retirement of certain Liberal members in marginal seats will also do their party some harm but I am willing to make one more prediction. Peter Dutton will win Dickson.
A good sitting member such as Dutton should have no trouble getting the 1.2 per cent swing he needs to retain his present seat. Those who say he should shift to a better seat are not helping the Liberal Party.''
Dutton appeared to prove me wrong. In that very same issue of The Weekend Australian it was reported that he would seek his party's endorsement for McPherson. I then wrote in The Canberra Times (''Parties pay when MPs indulge personal wishes'', September 7, p9), ''On Friday, August 21, the Member for Dickson, Peter Dutton, announced that he would not contest Dickson again, notwithstanding that he had won it three times, in 2001, 2004 and 2007. Instead he would seek pre-selection for the safe seat of McPherson, held by retiring member, Margaret May.'' That announcement shocked me.
As far as I was concerned Dutton was cutting and running. Yet every indication is that his party approves of his decision. Liberals will say that there are Labor precedents. In 1996 Labor's deputy prime minister, Kim Beazley, transferred from his then marginal seat, Swan (WA) to the safe seat of Brand. But Beazley was a party leader. Dutton is no more than any old politician put into a seat by the Liberal Party. Better should be expected of him. There is no point in their saying that Dickson has been weakened in the redistribution. Lots of members have that happen to them. Furthermore, there are plenty of cases of a young member turning a seat notionally against him into a seat he can hold by hard work. The Liberal Party should have insisted Dutton do the same.
As things have turned out the Liberal Party is going to do exactly as I advised but only after making a fool of itself, and only after Dutton made an even bigger fool of himself. Meanwhile The Australian was strongly barracking for Dutton. Not only had the contributing editor, Peter Van Onselen, written umpteen articles urging Dutton upon this folly but he was later joined by columnist Glenn Milne.
Then on October 3, the local McPherson members of the Liberal National Party turned on a display of impertinence. They chose Karen Andrews as their candidate. As so often happens, ordinary people snubbed the elite, thereby showing themselves to be smarter than members of that elite. On October 5, The Australian went ballistic. Almost everything they published on this subject was stupid, but perhaps the silliest of all was the editorial, the sub-heading for which read: ''The Liberal Party must endorse the leaders of the future''. Pray tell me, Mr Leader Writer: is there any reason to doubt that the Liberal Party would have endorsed Dutton if he had done the conventional thing and sought a fourth term for Dickson? On the opposite page there was a ridiculous article by Glenn Milne which did at least have the virtue of including some interesting gossip. However, the daddy of them all was the article on page 2 by Van Onselen. He wrote: ''If the federal Coalition can't manufacture a way to guarantee Dutton his parliamentary representation, it is going to slip further towards electoral oblivion. There is no going back to Dickson for Dutton. Apart from the fact the new margin renders the seat virtually unwinnable in the current electoral climate, the Labor Party would successfully paint Dutton as a deserter if he tried to re-contest it.'' Is that not just typical of the sort of rubbish one comes to expect from the political class?
Van Onselen commands the elite of the Liberal Party to guarantee Dutton a seat, as though the party appoints members of the House of Representatives! The mugs out there are so stupid that the map drawers have made the seat virtually unwinnable under a redistribution Van Onselen has called a Ruddymander. I have a very different view from those who think like that. I think it is wonderful when ordinary people tell elites to rack off. I also have enough faith in the smartness and fair-mindedness of ordinary voters to know what will happen. Dutton will come to his senses, admit he made a fool of himself (for which he will be forgiven), contest Dickson as the Liberal candidate, and win. Labor's attempt to paint Dutton as a deserter will be treated with the contempt it deserves.
Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of NSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy.