Peter Dutton 3.0: can the Coalition hard man change voters’ minds by pasting on a smile?

by Amy Remeikis
After two decades in politics, rebranding might not be as easy as putting on a friendly face and presenting as someone new

Peter Dutton can smile again.

Not only smile, he can laugh. Crack jokes. Remember birthdays. Have nuanced conversations.

He’s not just the Liberal party leader, he’s a family man, an organic farmer. They might be for multimillion-dollar properties, but he has mortgages. In case you hadn’t noticed, Peter Dutton is just like you. Or at least those pushing his image overhaul really hope you think so.

Dutton’s role in previous Coalition incarnations was no accident. He came to the parliament ready to fight. His first speech in 2001 made his position clear, as he spoke about his former career in the Queensland police, showing him the best and worst of society.

“I have seen the sickening behaviour displayed by people who, frankly, barely justify their existence in our sometimes over tolerant society,” he said.

That man now wants to try to win back disillusioned Liberal voters, who voted for more tolerant candidates at the most recent election.

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Since becoming leader, Dutton has been working to distance himself from his last two decades in Australian politics. Political attacks against the Labor government have been largely left to others in the shadow cabinet and “Peter Dutton the man behind the politics” profiles have been dripped out to the media.

Most recently, the national broadsheet ran a profile featuring quotes from his friends – most anonymously quoted – about how great a friend the opposition leader is.

So far, the softening attempts have not worked. The September Newspoll showed Dutton’s approval ratings had dropped four points to minus eight. It is not unusual for a new opposition leader to start from a low popularity base, but that’s normally because people don’t really know them. Dutton’s main issue is that people do know who he is.

Dutton’s time in government, the conservative media interviews, the constant dragging of progressive causes and those who promoted them, the combative statements and an unwillingness to compromise his positions, have painted a very strong image of who Dutton is and what he does with power.

“He is so intimately connected to the worst moments of the Coalition government over the last decade,” a former senior Coalition staffer says.

Stopping the boats, all the rightwing lunacy, he is linked to all of it.”

When Morrison took over the Coalition’s leadership, he was largely successful in creating a new image of himself for the broader public, at least for the first election campaign in 2019.

Morrison had his own hard man reputation as the immigration minister behind “stopping the boats” and refusing to comment on “on-water matters”. Even as treasurer he could indulge in a provocative stunt such as bringing a lump of coal into parliament, but gradually he carved out space, at least with those who didn’t pay attention to day-to-day politics, to shape shift into the “daggy dad”.

Dutton, though, had made an art form of persistently making news with his comments.

After two decades of stony-faced escalation of issues, the Dutton rebrand is not as easy as pasting on a smile and presenting as someone new.

And that is a major problem, according to strategists and former and current colleagues, with no one yet able to point to a solution.

Peter Dutton addresses the joint party room in August
Peter Dutton addresses the joint party room in August. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“Morrison was largely unknown by most of the electorate [when he became prime minister], despite his time in government,” one said. “Dutton is quite different. He can’t be someone different.

“Even if he was able to come across as a friendly face and people had confidence in what the Liberal party stands for under him, he is not going to stand for what the party needs to do to get back in government.”

And that is the rub, says a former senior Liberal MP. Dutton has “nailed his colours pretty strongly to the mast” and “everyone knows what he stands for”.

“Beyond the base, it was largely rejected by the electorate.

“So where does he go from here? Does he pretend to be someone different and risk losing the natives? Or does he double down and turn off the people we need to vote for us? Dutton can’t pretend he didn’t do the things he did while in government.”

The question, Coalition MPs are asking, is who is Dutton speaking to? And who does the Coalition think is listening, with Dutton at the helm?

Peter Dutton participates in a sideshow game at the Royal Queensland Show in Brisbane
Peter Dutton participates in a sideshow game at the Royal Queensland Show in Brisbane. Photograph: Russell Freeman/AAP

Tony Abbott told the ABC’s Four Corners program Dutton had everything it takes to be prime minister, and if he can add “luck” to the pile, he just might get there.

Others in the Coalition wonder if Dutton will still be standing as leader when the nation returns to polling booths.

“Right now, we don’t really have anyone else, and while Angus [Taylor] hasn’t given up, Dutton has that in hand in the party room. No one is looking to change leaders, because no one can come up with the answers for the way forward,” a Coalition MP says.

“Until we know what we stand for, and who we represent, this is the best we have.”