Will the Federal Liberal Party survive in its current form or splinter as its leader Peter Dutton insists on crashing through on the Indigenous Voice referendum?
Dutton’s decision to oppose the Voice question has obviously divided the party, and the refusal of a conscience vote to the front bench could mean more resignations to follow after Julian Lesser quit on principle.
Now fully committed, Dutton has dragged the party even further to the right and potentially irrevocably damaged its brand.
He was desperate for a point of difference with the Albanese Government and, after a period of phony consultation, peppered with all manner of muddying of the waters, has gone full throttle, flying back to Alice Springs for some more unsubstantiated headline hunting.
Even if one accepts Dutton is genuine in his concerns about sexual abuse in Indigenous communities, as a former police officer, he of all people would know the complexities and formalities involved in dealing with such allegations.
Unfortunately, it is painfully obvious that he is exploiting the troubles in the Centre to damage the Yes case by implication that the Voice will do nothing to resolve these kinds of issues.
It portends an ugly and divisive referendum campaign in which the No case becomes ever more extreme.
The almost daily opinion pieces in the Murdoch broadsheet seem to extract any sort of alarmist arguments against the Yes case, from constitutional nitpicking to claims the courts will be clogged with litigation to the very system of government grinding to a halt as every Budget line item goes under the Voice microscope.
One would have thought Indigenous Voice proponents have already had enough of bureaucratic logjam, and the idea will be to expedite action not tie things up in committees.
This is why constitutional recognition on its own is not enough to bring about real change.
Then there is the talk of a shadow government, as if the powerful sectional interests and their lobby groups don’t have a say in what governments do or, more to the point, don’t do.
Or that the Voice will produce just another elitist, unrepresentative body. That’s got nothing to do with the actual referendum question and everything to do with the Parliament.
Even as Dutton blows his dog whistle in Alice Springs, conservatives are abandoning his position because they want the Voice to succeed.
He is leading the Liberal Party into a morally indefensible position.
Even if the referendum fails, it will not fail by much. It would be a pyrrhic victory and the Liberal Party could be mortally wounded.
While Dutton expends energy on the Voice, the party is bleeding members and support as it ignores policy renewal and contributing to the national discussion on tax, cost of living, housing and the like.
Dutton’s dead end on the Voice doesn’t come in isolation, but follows a shifting electorate’s disillusionment not just with conservative social policies but, importantly, economic policies.
And it’s no point looking to elder Liberal statesmen like John Howard for solace because the chickens are coming home to roost on market-driven decisions his government took that have helped lock young people out of home ownership, produced a crisis in aged care, run-down public education and health and given families exorbitant childcare costs.
It would be premature to talk of the Liberal Party’s death, but unless it can adjust to changed social beliefs and renew its economic stance, it may be left stranded by history.
The Canberra Liberals’ situation is a good example of what can happen. The right-wing grip on the party has alienated it from the community, cost it support and members, and handed government to Labor election after election.
The Liberal Party needs to define just what party values are worth conserving because people are tired of culture and gender wars.
Instead of being the inclusive party of Menzies, it has become hostage to fringe elements and seemingly committed to economic and tax policies that feed inequity.
Government is built on the centre, and that centre has shifted.
There is a whiff of the marriage equality plebiscite about the Voice referendum. For all the sound and fury being generated by opponents, Australians seem ready to move on.
Dutton is holding the Liberal Party back.