Dutton’s frontbench problem laid bare by Hughes’ feud with Taylor

Peter Dutton is in full campaign mode. He is ramping up his media appearances from rare to daily. Even the moderates of the party are happy with how Dutton is ruthlessly clawing at Anthony Albanese’s agenda.

If,after the embarrassingAston byelection loss in April 2023,the doubters writing off Dutton’s prospects had been told that he could be 50-50 in some polls less than a year from an election,they would have laughed.

Peter Dutton has reignited the climate wars this week.

Peter Dutton has reignited the climate wars this week.Louise Kennerley

His aggressive stances on the Voice to parliament referendum and on climate and nuclear energy have displayed conviction even as they have raised big political risks.

But behind the hardman opposition leader,there are problems in the Coalition frontbench.

A publicrift this weekexposed previously concealed fears among Coalition MPs about the party’s readiness to govern.

NSW senator Hollie Hughestold this masthead on Monday that the opposition’s chief economic spokesman,Angus Taylor,was doing a poor job countering Treasurer Jim Chalmers. She urged him to “get across his details”.

The brutal drive-by was spurred by Hughes’ view that Taylor helped kill her political career when he supported a challenger whopushed her from a winnable spot on the NSW Senate ticket.

Hughes’ post-hoc rationalisation for the loss may have been partly self-interested,but it was also revealing.

First,after a remarkable two years of opposition unity,Hughes felt the need to go public attacking the party’s second most important frontbencher,suggesting she felt strongly about Taylor’s output. Second,she only went public because she knew she was reflecting the views of a number of her colleagues;Hughes has no interest in isolating herself as she seeks some pathway back to parliament.

Albanese seized on this,noting on Thursday that these hostilities would “not normally be tolerated by a strong leader of a political party”.

Hollie Hughes is the opposition’s assistant spokeswoman for mental health and the NDIS.

Hollie Hughes is the opposition’s assistant spokeswoman for mental health and the NDIS.Janie Barrett

It’s surprising how quickly Coalition MPs are willing to rubbish some of their senior colleagues’ performances in private.

“It’s actually scary some of these people could be running the government if we win,” one frontbencher said.

“There’s pretty widespread concern internally of a structural problem where they would not be able to do the job in government and are not working hard enough.”

Another asked:“Where are the opinion pieces,the policy papers,the big set-piece speeches,the serious work required to create a winning product?”

The whole frontbench,Taylor included,deserves credit for getting the Coalition in the game after a diabolical 2022 election. But even the most optimistic polls show the opposition would fall short of the 21 seats it needs to win a majority of 76 in the lower house.

Concerns about the opposition’s economic messaging have been bubbling under the surface for months. Former treasurers and party leaders have privately expressed doubts to MPs about the Coalition’s work in this area,say Liberal sources,who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely.

A recent fracas in which energetic backbencher Maria Kovacic was blocked from chairing the backbench economics committee in favour of chief disciplinarian,whip Bert van Manen,has caused despair among economics-focused MPs. They worry about an internal party culture that stifles fresh ideas that could vault the Coalition back into government.

Labor has presided overfive quarters of per capita economic shrinkage. Liberal MPs believe Chalmers should be under more pressure as a result.

Oxford-educated Angus Taylor,a Rhodes Scholar,is the Liberal prime minister you’d create in a lab.

Oxford-educated Angus Taylor,a Rhodes Scholar,is the Liberal prime minister you’d create in a lab.Alex Ellinghausen

Oxford-educated Taylor,a Rhodes Scholar,is the Liberal prime minister you’d create in a lab. But his colleagues question if he has that intangible quality:political X-factor and the ability to deliver a cut-through line. That question remains open.

Taylor’s backers argue opposition shadow treasurers often come in for this type of criticism and winning the economic argument is a slow burn.This masthead’s Resolve poll shows the Coalition has steadily clawed back ground and moved ahead of Labor on economic management – a credit to Taylor. Labor’s last budget sunk in days.

Outside of Dutton,the party relies too heavily on too few. Home affairs spokesman James Paterson does the job of four shadow ministers,as one MP put it.

MPs worry that an election campaign will draw out gaffes and underperforming frontbenchers.

Too many portfolio holders are not seen taking up the fight to Labor. Nationals deputy leader Perin Davey,shadow assistant treasurer Luke Howarth,Kevin Hogan,Susan McDonald,Angie Bell,Dean Smith,Tony Pasin,Michelle Landry and Rick Wilson can often seem absent.

Meanwhile,talent languishes on the backbench.

Garth Hamilton,Dave Sharma,Julian Leeser and Andrew Wallace are articulate and energetic. First-termers Kovacic,Henry Pike,Simon Kennedy,Zoe McKenzie,Sam Birrell,Aaron Violi,Phil Thompson,and Keith Wolahan are the next generation.

Albanese and his cabinet have some serious deficiencies,but acore group of experienced and competent ministers is one of the government’s great strengths.

On paper,Albanese’s full squad has Team Dutton’s measure.

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Paul Sakkal is federal political correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald who previously covered Victorian politics and has won two Walkley awards.

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