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This guy wants us to believe he's softer and cuddlier than we think. Good luck with that

Opinion

Has Peter Dutton got what it takes? Dennis Atkins casts an eye over his new look and discovers some ill-fitting garb.

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Peter Dutton made political history by just putting his hand up in the federal parliamentary Liberal Party room on Monday morning.

He is the first Queenslander to have his photo on the leadership wall in Canberra and just the second – after South Australian Alexander Downer – not to have come from Sydney or Melbourne.

Also, in a quirk that only Queensland could throw up, he is in one significant sense not a Liberal Party member.

The LNP, to which Dutton belongs, is affiliated as a state division of the national Liberals and the national Nationals.

Those LNP types who identify as Liberals sit in the Liberal party room while the others who see themselves as Nats have a home in the smaller, earthier Nationals party room.

Dutton is the only real choice for a shattered and battered Coalition which has had its own identity bounced around by Greens in inner Brisbane, the teals in other capitals and Labor here and there.

The hard arithmetic of the election result shows a true Liberal (someone who is not an LNP fellow traveler) could not reasonably be elected as Coalition leader.

The Queenslanders and the Nationals have the numbers. In the new Parliament there will be at least 28 Liberals, 21 MPs from the Queensland merged LNP and 10 Nationals from New South Wales, Victoria and the Northern Territory.

This gives the combined LNP/Nats a majority which still holds even if the Liberals claim both of the seats still in doubt (Gilmore in NSW and Deakin in Victoria).

What a turn around. This has never happened before. The Liberals are now the junior partner in the Coalition and will stay that way unless there is an outburst of madness in Queensland, and the 2006 merger omelet is unscrambled.

Given there are fewer than 1500 of the approximately 10,000 LNP branch members who are seen as “Liberals”, there is no rhyme or reason to undo the merger.

This being the case there was no alternative to having a Queenslander in the top job. Dutton represents the majority partnership in the wider Coalition – the LNP/Nationals axis – and his seat of Dickson is just the electoral vehicle the Liberals believe is their path back to power in 2025.

The problems for Dutton are greater than he or many of his colleagues appear to realise or accept.

His first news conference was just okay as far as it went, despite being too long and in desperate need of an editor. He needs to stop over-explaining the bleeding obvious while also pulling back on the “I’m the Opposition so I’ll oppose” tough guy look.

Two things needed in Dutton’s greeting as new Liberal leader were some humility and introspection and some genuine signalling of a desire to make government and the parliament work in a better way.

This was one of the loudest messages from the election – people did not want business as usual. Sure, they wanted action on climate, action on anti-corruption and accountability and a new approach to how women are treated.

But voters across the country also put their hand up for a better way of doing politics. They want an end to making everything a binary choice, a halt to trying to trick or wedge your opponent because you think you can and for the curtain to be brought down on tribalism in parliament and national affairs.

This was demonstrated in the stunning success of the teal candidates in suburban Sydney and Melbourne and in beachside Perth. It also featured in the strong vote for the Greens – resulting in an historic three additional House seats and half a dozen senators elected – and the relatively big showing for minor parties such as One Nation and the legalise cannabis group.

Dutton needs to think on these threads that are apparent in the results of the election and stop giving every indication he will be a Canberrra version of the US Republican Party’s Mitch McConnell and oppose anything Anthony Albanese’s government does or suggests.

It might help if his Queensland copper “never give a sucker a break, even or not” attitude were parked at least. Suggesting the election result was down to some kind of temporary protest that voters will shake off after a good lie down is delusional.

The imperatives behind all this are even more important when you look at where the Liberals need to go to win in 2025.

Assuming the LNP will stay at the highwater mark of 21 out of 30 seats in Queensland, their path to victory lies in the suburban and exurban seats in and around the mainland capitals of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. There’s one seat they could aim for in Adelaide but the bulk of the effort is elsewhere.

An initial post-election analysis by top elections decoder Ben Raue illustrates the degree of difficulty for Dutton and the Liberals/LNP/Nats.

Summing up what we know and what can be reasonably assumed, Dutton needs to appeal to some inner-city metropolitan voters in Sydney and Melbourne (who were at the forefront of the anti-Liberal swings), to the outer-suburban everyman and woman (with whom he might have more affinity) and stop the haemorrhaging of votes among the 18-24 year olds and women more generally.

It’s a hard chess board to confront and available evidence says Dutton will not satisfy all of these constituencies, perhaps not even most of them.

Dutton says he’s really a caring, cuddly soft guy and we can forget the man who defamed the African community in Melbourne using the police tactic of profiling (“gangs”), locked up the young kids from the Sri Lankan Murugappan family and banged the drums of war with China to exploit electoral fear.

Many voters – and not just those behind the inner city Great Wall of Quinoa – will have doubts and it will take a real leap of faith by many hundreds of thousands of Australians to accept this transformation. As the iron law of politics has it: actions not words change minds.

That’s the Opposition, next week I’ll have a look at what the Labor Party and the large group of “others” have made of things. Then I’m taking a few weeks off.

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