Liberal leader Peter Dutton faces a critical test of his leadership in the Aston byelection, say some federal party MPs who argue that a defeat could be fatal to his leadership.
Dutton and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have both visited the seat four times in the past month, and both will be back in the final two days of the campaign.
The Liberal Party clung on to Aston at the 2022 election, but the margin was slashed from 10.1 per cent to 2.8 per cent as Labor candidate Mary Doyle pushed scandal-plagued former minister Alan Tudge into marginal seat territory. Doyle is standing against former barrister Roshena Campbell.
Labor and Liberal MPs and operatives have both been talking down their chances of winning the seat in the final days of the campaign, in an attempt to manage expectations about the result.
One Labor strategist, who asked not to be named, said it would be tough for the ALP to win but pointed out the average swing against an incumbent government at byelections since 1950 had been 3.7 per cent.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald spoke to 11 senior Liberal MPs over the past two weeks about the potential impact of the Aston byelection on Dutton’s leadership.
Almost all of those MPs praised Dutton’s ability to unite a bruised party room post-defeat and that success in Aston – the first electoral test of the opposition leader – could decide his future as leader.
Of the 11 MPs, four of them – two of whom remain close political allies of Dutton – confirmed there was chatter in Liberal ranks about what would happen if they lost the seat.
If Labor were to win the seat, it would be the first time in 103 years that an opposition has lost a seat to a government at a byelection.
Those four MPs, all of whom asked not to be named so they could discuss the matter, suggested that deputy leader Sussan Ley would be the most likely candidate to emerge.
Two of them opposed any switch to Ley and two welcomed it. None of those MPs said a change was likely or imminent, just that it was being discussed.
Conservative, Dutton-supporting MPs said that Ley had been taking soundings from the backbench for weeks, but they rubbished the prospect of the Liberal moderate becoming the party’s leader.
However, an MP who is not from Dutton’s conservative faction said that “the only person who can win the next election is Sussan, but it’s a tiny chance”.
Dutton and Ley’s office were both approached with the same information about leadership discussions in Liberal Party ranks and both declined to comment.
The opposition leader told radio station 2GB that Campbell would be a fantastic local member for Aston and that the controversy in the Victorian state Liberal Party over the attempt by state opposition leader John Pesutto to expel MP Moira Deeming had been “frustrating”.
“I think the opportunity here for people in Aston is to elect a good representative. They know they’re not going to change the government in a byelection and I think it’s an opportunity to send the government a message,” he said.
A Labor campaign flyer circulating in the seat targets Dutton, claiming the Liberal leader was “rejected by his own party as leader, twice” and “now he’s the leader of Morrison’s Liberal leftovers”.
Dutton only stood for leadership of the Liberals once before, during the 2018 leadership spill, when he ran against Malcolm Turnbull but was ultimately bested by Scott Morrison.
Strategists from both major parties believe that the rising cost of living is a key issue in the byelection but agree that voters are not yet blaming the Albanese government for this.
Labor has not polled in Aston since early in the campaign, indicating that the party believes victory may be a bridge too far.
In 2018, the so-called super Saturday of five byelections caused by the dual-citizenship crisis was a major test of former Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten, who had Albanese breathing down his neck.
Similarly, Albanese needed to acquit himself during the Eden-Monaro by-election of 2020. Both men secured the victories they needed to remain in the top opposition job.
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