Opinion: How Dutton’s power play put him in election race

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Peter Dutton took a major political gamble last week and he’d have to be happy with the hand he’s holding so far.

The Opposition Leader’s decision to back nuclear power and build seven reactors across the country has been labelled as everything from shrewd to political suicide.

There is no doubt that it has made the next Federal Election a referendum on electricity production.

And this is the thing: Dutton’s nuclear plan has put him in a race that he wasn’t even at the starting blocks for just a short while ago.

Sure, you could argue Anthony Albanese is on the nose and Labor is struggling for cut through in the wider electorate, but in reality Dutton was destined to lose the next election.

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Now, he’d consider himself a raging hot chance.

The announcement could have gone down like a led balloon last week.

In fact, that’s what Labor was banking on. Childish memes even started being shared on social media by Labor MPs and backers; an attempt to mock Dutton and make the plan seem so ludicrous that it was worthy of laughing about.

But Dutton would have to be over the moon with the figures released as part of a Resolve poll in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday.

It reveals that just 37 per cent of voters are against the use of nuclear power. 41 per cent of voters are in support, while 22 per cent remain undecided.

That 22 per cent is the key for both parties heading into the next election.

They likely represent the swing voters, and they’re every chance of being convinced by Dutton that nuclear must play a part in Australia’s electricity future as gas and coal become less relied upon.

Interestingly, only 51 per cent of Labor voters are dead against the use of nuclear power. 30 per cent support it, and 19 per cent are undecided.

He wouldn’t say it publicly, but those numbers would have to be a worry for Albanese.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Photo: Melinda Jane.

The truth is most Australians don’t buy that wind and solar are the silver bullet or only solution when it comes to electricity production in the future.

They don’t buy the Chris Bowen dreamland that they’re often sold.
Labor would be very nervous here.

Nervous not only because Dutton’s idea wasn’t completely laughed out of the room by the electorate last week, but because of Albanese’s short-term history.

Last year’s Voice referendum turned into a complete and utter disaster, mainly because the Prime Minister couldn’t explain exactly what it would mean and played second fiddle to the stronger ‘no’ campaign.

The Voice should have been a home run but the longer it went on, the more Albanese looked like a people pleaser who didn’t really care about the detail.

There is three factors that will determine whether the public jumps on board Dutton’s nuclear train, or sticks with Albanese and Bowen’s plan of moving to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050, with gas helping along the way.

Anthony Albanese.

The first is cost.

The Coalition has promised it will release the costings of building and maintaining the nuclear reactors well before the next Federal Election.

The price tag will be extraordinary, and Labor may be able to do enough to scare people off the huge spend.

The second is the fear factor.

How does the Coalition convince voters that the Chernobyl disaster is not being invited to happen again under this plan?

There’s more than enough evidence out there to suggest nuclear power is safe and that a Chernobyl-type disaster is not within the realms of possibility, but you just know where the anti-nuclear campaign will go.

Can the Coalition combat such a campaign, and convince voters that nuclear reactors aren’t quite as sloppy as we see in episodes of ‘The Simpsons’.

The third is the personality battle.

Who wins the war of words between Albanese, who has already shown his hand by all but endorsing the silly memes that went around last week, and Dutton, who many had considered unelectable given his dry, unendearing personality?

For Labor to win this fight it must get itself out of the gutter. Given nuclear is used quite successfully in countries around the world, it can’t just toss Dutton’s idea aside.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. Photo: Melinda Jane.

It must focus on the extraordinary cost and convince voters its plan is better and will keep the lights on, all while ensuring electricity bills don’t soar out of control.

Labor must also find a way to ensure Albanese’s campaign against nuclear does not come across as a lecture. Such an attitude played a critical role in the failure of the Voice referendum.

For the Coalition to get this across the line, it must convince voters that the cost is worth the result.

It must overcome the safety concerns, and prove that Labor’s way is wrong; if it can’t do that then it can’t justify such a shift in thinking for our electricity production.

And it must find a way to sell Dutton himself, too, who the wider electorate remain uncertain about.

Two things will happen here.

This will either become a visionary moment in Australian politics.

Or it will be the end of Peter Dutton. You can’t come back from such an audacious plan if it fails at the next election.

I’d say Dutton has won the first round. But the fight has a long way to go.

Troy Dodds

Troy Dodds is the Weekender's Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia's leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.

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