Evidently Peter Dutton has imbibed Anthony Albanese's teachings that he can't do much to secure the next election from his first year in opposition. But he can blow it.
Far better to focus on surviving as Liberal leader and hoping circumstances become favourable. In this diabolical economic environment, such a shift in sentiment cannot be ruled out.
Hence the toned-down aggression from the Liberal hard man last Thursday night for the smallest 'big' event on the parliamentary calendar, the budget reply.
The opposition we learned, would back all of Labor's new spending on childcare, extended paid parental leave, cheaper medicines, and more money for veterans.
This was wise and suggests Dutton understands his limitations and is eyeing the longer game.
But opposition is such a balancing act. Like his predecessors, Dutton is on permanent probation. His colleagues will pay, or slay, on results. Or fear.
So Dutton must appear to move forward even if only to stand still. This means coming across as mainstream and constructive to voters while giving his base enough red meat to chew on.
The first part took the form of his personal story, marked by his entry into home ownership at the age of just nineteen.
A juxtaposition of sorts emerged. Albanese had used the same event to tell of being raised by a single mother in a council flat. Dutton's version was more privileged, but he tied that to his own enterprise.
Then came his spirited attack on Labor's pledge to cut household power bills by $275. Expect to hear plenty more about that from now on given it is plainly undeliverable.
It was all low risk and relatable until it came to his hopes of pursuing small modular nuclear reactors as Australia's answer to high electricity prices, CO2 emissions, and the intermittence of renewables.
This odd infatuation with nukes is a combination of dogma and opportunism. Liberals were quietly surprised at the equanimity with which voters absorbed the news of Australia's entry into the ultra-exclusive nuclear submarine club - albeit more than a decade from now.
This new nuclear pivot however was the wrong rein to pull. It merely underlines that the Coalition will consider any alternative to widely embraced renewable energy no matter how unlikely, impractical, expensive, or unpopular.
And it shows that pillorying renewables because they were emergent technologies, as yet unproven, was exactly what it seemed - arrant, self-serving piffle.
The budget reply might be inconsequential but the prime-time broadcast is a rare opportunity for the opposition leader to get into the lounge rooms of the nation, and while there, change a few minds.
It is urgent work.
The most recent Resolve Monitor survey in the Nine papers revealed he trails Albanese by an intimidating 35 percentage points as preferred prime minister, gaining the approval of fewer than one in 5 respondents.
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The reactors fantasy aside, Dutton's job last week was to establish a presence, hold the government's feet to the fire on broken promises, and start a better relationship with middle-Australian voters.
This relationship-building aspect is crucial for Liberals desperate to find their way back into voters' favour and who still worry that their hard-man leader personifies the punchline to the old joke, "if that's where I was going, I wouldn't start from here".
Dutton, they fear, is already well known for his uncompromising toughness on borders and refugees, for his sotto voce joke about rising sea levels in the Pacific, and of course, for being one of only a handful of Liberals to boycott the Apology to the Stolen Generations.
He says he regrets that decision, and used an interview on Friday to say "what happened in the Stolen Generations, which has been well documented, was horrible, dreadful ... it was about taking children away from good families".
Yet the real test of his claimed enlightenment is close at hand. Dutton has still not settled on which of the three possible positions the Liberal Party will adopt regarding the Voice to Parliament referendum.
This dilly-dallying is fast becoming a message in itself.
He says the party room could either agree to support the yes case, decide to oppose it, or, allow Liberals a free vote as per the 1999 republic referendum. And marriage equality.
While some say Dutton could personally advocate a yes vote, they say he is leaning toward the final option of a giving Liberals the freedom to campaign for, or against, as they see fit.
This would be a cruel cop-out. Only the first of these options (committed Liberal support) gives the Voice referendum a fighting chance.
The issue may be fraught within the party room, but a majority of Australians are looking for new moral leadership and a new kind of politics.
If that wasn't clear from the last election, nothing was.
Mainstream Australians will not forgive him if he frustrates this historic chance for national fulfillment whether through rank conservatism, or through tricky each-way politics.
Even if he quickly formalises support for the referendum, Dutton's path back to power will not be easy - especially if he cannot recover blue-ribbon Liberal losses in 2022.
Opportunities will however, arise. No government is error-free and Labor has already made missteps - not least the early withdrawal of pandemic leave (quickly reversed) and the $275 energy bill promise. Then there is stage III.
But opposition leaders can err also. SMRs is one such mistake.
- Mark Kenny is The Canberra Times' political analyst and a professor at the ANU's Australian Studies Institute. He is a director of the National Press Club and hosts the Democracy Sausage podcast.