Even Dutton’s own side warn him off “populist” issues. But there is not much doubt that education trumps climate with outer suburban mums.
For the first three-quarters of Peter Dutton’s budget-reply speech in parliament last Thursday Labor MPs sat in polite and uninterested silence.
Up until then the opposition leader’s remarks were typical Liberal boilerplate interspersed with a few good one-liners.
His statement that the government’s promise to increase the share of renewables in National Electricity Market to 82 per cent by 2030 would require 28,000 kilometres of new high-voltage transmission lines, the distance of travelling from Melbourne to Perth and back four times was well made. Probably for the first time it made the scale and cost of “net zero” comprehensible to the public. Of course the problem for the Dutton is that “net zero” is as much his policy as Albanese’s.
The Coalition’s efforts to raise the topic of nuclear energy for Australia should be applauded, even if that attempt is couched in the most equivocal terms possible. In his speech Dutton said, “the Coalition is seeking an intelligent conversation on the role that these new-age nuclear technologies [zero-emission small modular reactors] might or might not be able to play in the energy mix”. That’s fine as far as it goes, but brave policymaking isn’t about having “intelligent conversations”. When Paul Keating was treasurer he didn’t say, “I’d like a dialogue on whether floating the dollar will or won’t work”.
It was when Dutton switched from economics to talking about culture the government backbenches suddenly started paying attention. Labor MPs began shifting uncomfortably in their seats and then quickly turned to heckling and interjecting.
What provoked them was a dozen-line paragraph from Dutton about education. He said Australians should “celebrate our wonderful Indigenous history, but we need to be equally proud of our British heritage and our migrant story”. Once that wasn’t a controversial statement.
The last thing Labor wants is for Dutton to wage a culture war.
As Dutton continued Labor MPs only got more angry. He said the school system “has allowed ideologically driven advocates too much influence over what is taught to our children” and “teaching a sanitised and selective version of history and the arts, and radical gender theory, is not in our children’s best interests. What is needed is a focus on making the basics a priority: reading, writing and maths; fostering a love of our country and a pride in our history and democracy…”
That’s powerful stuff. And Labor MPs know it (which is why they got so upset) and Republicans in America also know it. If the Republicans do as well in next week’s midterm elections as predicted it will be in part because as Politico put it “voting parents are fired up over school safety measures…how to teach the nation’s history and the role parents play in shaping the decisions schools make for students”.
The last thing Labor wants is for Dutton to wage a culture war. Which is why Labor and their allies spend so much time attempting to convince the Liberals not to do so – because Labor knows who’s likely to win that war.
Even in Victoria, yes – even in Victoria, education ranks as a more important issue than climate change. According to a poll of 800 Victorians published in The Age last week, 81 per cent of respondents said education was an important issue, compared to 71 per cent who said, “the environment and climate change” was.
If Dutton really is going to try to take on the “ideologically driven advocates” of Australia’s education system he’ll first have to overcome the opposition within his own party room. After all it was the Liberal party room that allowed successive Liberal education ministers to spend the Coalition’s eight-and-a-half years in office creating the system Dutton is now criticising.
A not insignificant number of Liberal MPs somehow believe fighting for the nation’s culture is “populist” and beneath them. They are more comfortable spending their time defending negative gearing. They are also likely to believe the way to get the “women’s vote” in teal seats is to have quotas, so the affluent professional men in parliament are replaced by affluent professional women.
Sadly, no Liberal MP has yet suggested a “stay-at-home mums” quota to get the female working-class vote in Labor seats. If mothers in those seats start to hear Dutton’s message the next election might not be a foregone conclusion.