In a bid to revamp his public image, the federal Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, has embarked on an extensive makeover campaign. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors – John Howard and Anthony Albanese all had political success after their respective image makeovers – Dutton aims to present a more appealing persona to the electorate.
Dutton’s recent efforts have seen him don a new pair of glasses and release a seven-minute documentary-style video highlighting his positive attributes, with particular emphasis placed on testimonials from his wife, Kirilly Dutton.
In the video, Kirilly praises Dutton’s commitment to family, his love for his children, and his support for her successful small business. The couple portrays a “normal” home life, engaging in simple, wholesome activities like attending their children’s sporting events and enjoying the outdoors.
However, critics argue that these orchestrated attempts to present Dutton as a kind and empathetic individual clash with his actions throughout his political career. They point to instances such as his controversial walk-out during the Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, divisive comments regarding “African gangs” during the 2018 Victoria election, a history of hardline policies targeting refugees and asylum seekers, and his dismissive attitude towards the Voice to Parliament. These actions, combined with allegations of corruption, cast doubt on the authenticity of Dutton’s newfound empathy.
The video release has sparked a broader discussion about the effectiveness of such image makeovers in politics. It is not uncommon for politicians to attempt to reshape public perception through similar means, as evidenced by previous campaigns led by figures like Howard and Albanese. However, the cynicism surrounding Dutton’s efforts stems from the stark contrast between the portrayed empathy and the lack thereof demonstrated in his political actions.
Some observers argue that if a politician feels the need to produce a seven-minute video featuring people praising their character, it may indicate an underlying insecurity or lack of authenticity. Dutton’s video, labeled by some as a desperate attempt to improve his polling numbers, attempts to project him as a likable figure to counter the negative public sentiment.
Nevertheless, critics contend that true empathy and kindness cannot be manufactured and must be demonstrated consistently through actions.
Dutton’s ongoing struggle to resonate with the electorate is evident in his consistently low personal support ratings, hovering around 17 per cent, and the Liberal and National parties two-party preferred voting percentages ranging from 42 to 45 per cent. With the next federal election due in 2025 – two years away – the pressure to turn the tide is mounting. Speculation has emerged about potential leadership challenges within the Liberal Party, with some suggesting figures such as deputy leader Sussan Ley, may be positioning themselves as alternatives.
While Dutton’s image makeover may signal a sense of panic and desperation, it remains uncertain whether it will be sufficient to reverse his low levels of support. Public perception of politicians is primarily shaped by their public actions, and no amount of spin or promotional videos can easily alter entrenched perceptions.
Dutton and the religious problem in Victoria
Victoria’s political landscape also presents a significant obstacle for Dutton and the Liberal Party, as the state’s performance often impacts federal voting intentions. Recent polling reveals a persistently low level of support for the Liberal Party in Victoria – in state and federal polling – with around 39 per cent support, compared to the Labor Party’s 61 per cent.
These numbers highlight the pressing challenges faced by Dutton and his party. Adding to the woes is the struggle of the opposition leader in Victoria, John Pesutto, who is grappling with his own set of issues.
There is a growing influence of religious groups within the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, where Mormons, Pentecostals, and other conservative Christian factions have taken control of key party branches. This situation has raised concerns about the representation of the views of these groups in Parliament, especially when they do not necessarily align with the broader electorate’s sentiments.
A significant development in this context is the upcoming state byelection in the seat of Warrandyte, where the Liberal Party has preselected Nicole Werner, a Pentecostal preacher and activist, as their candidate. While there is nothing inherently wrong with religious individuals participating in politics – not all people of faith are conservative and there are some very progressive religious voices out there – the concern arises when their views disproportionately influence policy decisions, outweighing their representation within the electorate.
Werner’s previous electoral performance in the seat of Box Hill during the 2022 Victorian election is noteworthy: despite a 9 per cent swing against her on the primary vote in a seat the Liberal Party should have won, she has been given another preselection opportunity. This raises questions about the Liberal Party’s commitment to merit-based selection, which they often tout as a core principle.
Critics argue that Werner’s second preselection highlights the significant influence religious groups hold within the Victorian branch, potentially stifling the representation of diverse viewpoints. It also suggests that the party may not be genuinely listening to the electorate but rather prioritising the preferences of select interest groups.
The concerns surrounding the rise of religious groups within the Liberal Party extend beyond Werner’s candidacy. The overall composition of the Victorian branch has led to a disconnect between party members and the wider community and this divergence poses a significant challenge for the Liberal Party, as they risk alienating voters and failing to resonate with the electorate.
Liberal Party needs a return to liberal progressivism
In response to these issues, some observers have pointed out the need for the Liberal Party to evolve and become more progressive in the traditional sense of liberal progressivism. They argue that a party’s power lies in its ability to adapt and represent the changing views of society accurately. Ignoring this reality can result in the continued erosion of support and a lack of influence.
While Werner’s preselection may have been based on the decisions of the local branch membership, it does raise concerns about the party’s commitment to reflecting the broader community’s sentiments. The selection of candidates who do not represent the diversity of viewpoints within their electorates can hinder the party’s credibility and disconnect them from the needs and aspirations of the people they aim to serve.
As the Liberal Party navigates the intricate political landscape in Victoria, the challenges they face highlight the need for a more inclusive and representative approach. Overcoming these hurdles will require a thorough examination of candidate selection processes and a genuine commitment to understanding and addressing the concerns of the wider electorate. Failure to do so may impede the party’s ability to regain support and influence in the state and, ultimately, the federal arena.