The volatility of modern politics is a warning against writing off anyone, including Peter Dutton

(Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images / File)Peter Dutton photographed in Canberra last year.

  • Lots of people may be tempted to think Peter Dutton — known as a hardline conservative — would be a terrible leader of the Liberal Party.
  • Dutton could well be a disaster. There are questions over his policy achievements, and Labor thinks it has the measure of him.
  • But modern politics keeps on producing surprising results that fly in the face of conventional wisdom and the views of experts.

“They can’t be serious with Dutton,” read a text from the CEO of a tech industry company at 8am yesterday as a leadership spill loomed in the Liberal party room. “Surely not. Imbeciles.”

This will not be an uncommon sentiment among many onlookers this week, especially with Peter Dutton having come surprisingly close to blasting Malcolm Turnbull out of office in a leadership ballot.

The conventional wisdom runs that somebody like Dutton — who doesn’t have much of a national profile and whatever profile he does have is as a hardline conservative rather than a centrist — would be political poison for the Coalition.

But as we are seeing time and again in modern politics, conventional wisdom is often wrong.

Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s decision to leave the EU are the grand examples, but closer to home, consider the by-election in Longman. Conventional wisdom saw that as a likely close race and even an opportunity for the Coalition to snatch the seat back from Labor. The actual vote saw a big swing to Labor and a shock collapse of more than nine points in the Coalition primary vote — a result which, if repeated across Queensland, would see the Turnbull government comprehensively thrashed in a general election.

Across the disciplines of psychology and economics, there’s a lot of fascinating research into why people have such a difficult time coming to terms with long-term trends, even when they are patently measurable and observable. Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness — which Bill Gates says “an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world” — highlights this with its powerful examples of how consistently people seem to think the world is getting worse while in fact on a range of measures like income, health, and crime rates in advanced nations, life is demonstrably improving.

Much of this may be connected to the way we consume information through the news, which typically focuses on negatives.

Rosling’s bestseller focused on people’s failure to grasp some basic facts about the world. In economics, researchers like Richard Thaler have driven a new conversation about why economists continue to see economies as orderly when there is so much evidence that people’s real-world financial decision-making is highly emotional and erratic.

Psychology researcher Daniel Kahnemann demonstrated how people essentially have two different ways of thinking: the quick way, which often reaches incorrect conclusions, and the deeper, more involved process which leads to insight and more balanced conclusions.

In political matters, there also appears to be an increasing gap between conventional wisdom and what should be evident from observed reality: that people have had an absolute gutful of politicians and they are lashing out at them in unpredictable ways. (Perhaps no better example of this right now is the behaviour of the Parliamentary Liberal Party, who seem to have forgotten the brutal judgement voters passed on Labor for its disunity in the Rudd and Gillard years.)

In some areas, such as the decline primary vote support for the major parties, this is a slow but steady trend. While it is right to point out that the major parties look set to form governments for the foreseeable future, the national primary vote for parties outside the ALP and the Coalition was in the low single digits in the 1950s. In the 2016 election, this was more than 20%.

Other changes come at you faster, like the recent glimpses of the extreme right fringe of Australian politics in mainstream arenas through the likes of Blair Cottrell and Fraser Anning, characters who were clearly personae non gratae until, well, now. Witness also the recent surge in support for One Nation in Queensland (support that, over two decades, has flowed and ebbed like the tide) or the rise and then dramatic fall in popularity of Nick Xenophon’s party in South Australia.

And take Longman, where there was a consensus that it would be a tight contest — so tight, that it might even put pressure on Bill Shorten’s leadership. This was wildly inaccurate.

While the biggest signal from Longman may well be that voters are waiting with brickbats for the Coalition, this consistent unpredictability makes for an interesting environment when a personality like Dutton, seen in the conventional wisdom as “unpopular” and “too conservative”, is suddenly in the frame as a potential prime minister.

Unpopularity isn’t a hindrance. Tony Abbott was unpopular as opposition leader back in 2010 and he ended up being elected in a landslide. Turnbull and his government see Bill Shorten’s low personal approval ratings as a weakness and have continued to pursue the so-called “kill Bill” strategy on the belief that it will somehow resonate because Shorten is “unpopular”.

Again, see Longman.

The reality is that Australian politicians are about as popular these days as they’ve ever been – which is to say, not at all.

Voters, largely, think they’re all a bunch of bastards and it’s just a matter of what particular brand of bastard they want to put in charge.

This is not in any way to suggest Dutton would be a sure-fire vote-winner if he took over. It’s rather a timely reminder that understanding how voters may react to different political leaders and strategies has become increasingly complex — and to be wary of political prognostication, because self-appointed experts appear to be getting things hopelessly wrong a lot of the time.

Labor isn’t worried about Dutton, for what it’s worth, and thinks it has the measure of him. A senior ALP adviser told Business Insider that if Queensland MPs think Dutton will help them keep their seats in Queensland, “they are drinking the Kool-Aid”.

The adviser said that while Dutton’s leadership might be a help in more regional and conservative parts of Queensland, the Liberal and National supporters in more densely populated electorates in the south-east of the state are moderates who might bristle at a hardline Coalition, especially as they still remember the swingeing public service cutbacks under Campbell Newman’s state government.

For anyone who hasn’t followed the ins and outs of this mounting leadership tension, it’s important to realise that it is playing out at two distinct levels.

One is the white-hot intensity within the Parliamentary Liberal Party, where the right’s loathing of Turnbull has exploded into open hostility and a determination to try to blow him out of office.

But it’s also playing out within the Liberal rank and file, at a speed as slow as those annoying social media posts of people jumping into swimming pools. It’s the sinking realisation that the Turnbull government can’t get any traction with the public, and with no clear message on things critical to people’s daily lives like low wages growth, expensive childcare, they are doomed.

“I think it’s time for some new blood,” one influential Liberal now moving away from Turnbull told me this week.

“Always goes well. The public are quite happy for a new face to look at on TV. It’s like a political version of The Bachelor.”

Peter Dutton handing out the roses? There’s a bizarre visual.

Yet his supporters are already pleading with voters to get to the “real” Dutton, who they say is a nice guy.

And politics is a bizarre game, which is not a modern phenomenon. The realities of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the far right have caught the commentariat seriously off guard, however. So it’s wise to avoid rushing to write off anybody these days, including Peter Dutton.

The difference is about a million people out there absolutely love The Bachelor.

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