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There are some things in the Shrinking Nation that are not shrinking.


There are the obvious ones that have dominated the news – petrol prices, rents, the indexation of HECS/HELP debt, the cost of living in general, and, appallingly, domestic violence. And there are the ones that have been creeping up ever since COVID – the number of teachers, nurses and even junior doctors citing under-funding and burnout as a reason for quitting and looking for another career.


Among them now, though, is a more unexpected one – the number of voters who tell pollsters they intend to vote for the Coalition at the next election. For those who thought Dutton was unelectable (and perhaps thought the same of Tony Abbott), this comes as a bit of a shock. I’ll admit it, I’m a bit shocked. Dutton’s dogged commitment to the Abbott-Morrison era reflex of total attack, no matter what proposal is on the table, just looked like recidivism at the beginning but perhaps it is paying off. Likewise, with the tactic of shamelessly inventing falsehoods and then repeating them until people start to believe them.  Even when the media challenges these inventions, and this still happens less often than it should, the challenge doesn’t seem to stick.


Aggression rules


The reasons for the Coalition’s resurgence can’t be due to any significant policy alternatives. There aren’t any yet, there is just opposition. And Dutton is still as personally unappealing, I’m guessing, as he always was. He doesn’t seem to care much about that, and I wonder if that is part of the secret. The key factor here is the commitment to unremitting aggression that underlies the Coalition’s performance, a commitment that seems all the more determined because it is so often aligned with arguments that are pretty much bullshit. It’s a tactic that has served Trumpists like Steve Bannon well, and maybe it is doing the same thing here.


Hence the rolling Coalition talking point that the Albanese government is ‘weak and incompetent’. While it sounds confected, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact. Certainly, it gains some credibility from the way the two leaders present on television. Up against Dutton’s Rottweiler, Albanese can come across more like a Yorkshire terrier. And, regrettably, aggression, in the weird mess of political values we live with these days, can end up looking like leadership.


The government might feel this observation is a little unfair, but I am sure many would agree that national leadership has not been their strong point so far. A continual strategy of acknowledging problems (‘we have listened’) but nonetheless deferring action on them – until the budget, until the second term, until a review is conducted, until next year – creates the impression that this is a government which lacks the courage to do the things they know need to be done. And do them now, when it matters.


You wonder which is worse: to not do these things when you know they need to be done, or to not do them because you just don’t much care.


Don’t you know who I am?

The farrago around Albanese’s performance at the domestic violence rally in Canberra last weekend is just the most recent example of how to bungle the task of national leadership. Failing to defuse the awkward situation he had created for himself, then blanking the young woman weeping right beside him while banging on about ‘changing the culture’ and reciting the list of what his government has already done (and which has, so far, failed to have an impact). It doesn’t come up to the standard set by Morrison in not turning up at all to the Enough is Enough rally and then telling its participants they should be grateful they didn’t get shot. But, it sits at the entrance to that ballpark.


Meanwhile, state politicians have taken the lead in seriously looking at practical initiatives to be taken now: legal options around bail and sentencing rules, fixing the farce of AVOs, setting up a national register of serial domestic violence offenders (apparently, dozens of them have five or more victims!), increased funding for support services. and so on. A bit more constructive than wheeling out the standard platitudes about ‘changing the culture’ (or,  say, seeking serious advice on how we might go about doing that).


Trouble on the rise


While it might have seemed that the Australian public had rejected the kind of politics Dutton represents when they voted at the last election, it now seems possible that there was less to this than met the eye. As times get tougher for much of the electorate, what if the desire for what looks like strong leadership – of whatever kind – trumps Albanese’s forlorn hope for ‘a kinder, gentler politics’?  And if this means a return to the cynical polarisation that stalled progressive government in the recent past, what if a frustrated nation decides that this just might be a price worth paying?


It is a troubling possibility that, perhaps, and notwithstanding the Keating aphorism, when we changed the government we didn’t change the country.


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