One of those closely watching the extraordinary legal face-off between independent Monique Ryan and her former high-profile staffer, Sally Rugg, will be Josh Frydenberg, who lost Kooyong to the “teal” at last year’s election.
The outcome of the case, going to whether Rugg was forced to work unreasonable hours, could have significant ramifications for parliamentary staffs’ conditions.
But Frydenberg will be focused on whether the fight takes paint off Ryan.
Now in the private sector, Frydenberg hasn’t declared whether he will run again for Kooyong, but he hasn’t lost his political ambition.
He didn’t put his hand up for the Aston byelection, but then insiders didn’t expect him to. He’s concentrated on Kooyong – anyway the Liberals needed a woman in Aston.
If Frydenberg could regain his seat and Peter Dutton lost the 2025 election, one scenario for the Liberals would be for Frydenberg to take over the leadership and position the party to be competitive for the 2028 poll.
There are a lot of “ifs” involved, not least the 2025 result in Kooyong. Its boundaries will be affected by a redistribution. Ryan has another two years to dig in, and independents can be hard to dislodge.
Still, the teals were elected in very special circumstances, helped by the acute unpopularity of Scott Morrison, and some could be vulnerable next time. Ryan might be one of those.
Frydenberg would benefit if the economy were central at the election. But he’d need to make a decision on contesting relatively early, and run a savvier campaign than last time, when he unwisely derided his opponent as a “fake” independent.
There are those who cast doubt on how well Frydenberg would do as leader. Critics argue it’s hard to know what he stands for and that he wants to be popular with everyone. On the other hand, as a former treasurer and former energy minister, he has a wealth of front-line experience.
Frydenberg started out with the label of a conservative, but became more centrist. In 2018 he won the Liberal deputyship overwhelmingly. He carries baggage from the Morrison years, including what some saw as excessive loyalty to the then PM (he was also loyal to PMs Abbott and Turnbull).
Whatever his limitations, however, a Liberal party defeated in 2025 wouldn’t be replete with leadership talent.
Speculation about the significance of a Frydenberg return carries with it the assumption Dutton is doomed to failure. Caveats are required. I recalled being sceptical when Tony Abbott was elected leader. Then he nearly won his first election, and cleaned up at his second.
That said, it would be difficult at present to find anyone who’d put any money on Dutton.
Meanwhile he and his party are struggling for a strategy.
Dutton is, on a range of issues, adopting the “just say no” approach. The Liberals are opposing the legislation for implementing the government’s emissions reduction target (the safeguard bill), and bills for the national reconstruction fund (a kick-start for manufacturing), and a fund to generate a money stream to help provide affordable housing.
The “say no” strategy means Labor can counter Liberal attacks on the government over, for example, energy prices, by pointing out the Coalition voted against legislation last year to curb price rises.
Dutton jumped on the government’s superannuation tax rise, but the subsequent polling did not meet Liberal hopes they were on a winner. Newspoll showed strong support (64%) for the change, including 54% of Coalition voters.
While the Coalition is pursuing negative tactics (as Abbott did in opposition), this doesn’t extend to everything. There is important bipartisanship, for instance, on AUKUS. With the deal on the nuclear-powered submarines to be unveiled next week, Dutton on Thursday reaffirmed the opposition “will support the decisions of the government under AUKUS”.
However, one test coming up will be on the level of defence spending in the budget. Will the opposition say it should be higher than whatever the government settles on?
On the Voice to Parliament, Dutton has yet to declare a formal position. But he’s had nothing positive to say about it, and his party room would have a majority against. If the Liberals oppose it, that’s likely to go down poorly with younger voters.
Among the Liberals’ multiple problems is a weak team, which also lacks balance.
Senior people such as Liberal deputy Sussan Ley and shadow treasurer Angus Taylor are poor performers.
The moderates were decimated at the election, and those left are failing to act as a cohesive influence.
Backbencher Bridget Archer speaks out on issues, but comes across as reflecting and protecting her seat rather than having wider clout within the party.
The Liberals’ Senate leader, Simon Birmingham, is a heavyweight moderate who is not the driving force he should be. Former foreign minister Marise Payne, also a moderate, is neither seen nor heard publicly.
Valuable parliamentary seats are taken up by people with extreme positions, such as senators Gerard Rennick from Queensland and Alex Antic from South Australia.
Scott Morrison is in another category, but should make way for new blood.
The challenge of recruiting good potential candidates and getting them selected is only likely to get worse at a time when a political career has become unattractive to many, and the party erects road blocks to the best and brightest.
At the grass roots, it is vulnerable to infiltration by fundamentalist religious groups. Organisationally, it’s riven by factionalism and incompetent, with the Victorian, NSW and Western Australian divisions dysfunctional. Dutton needs to tackle this, but it’s a near-impossible task.
Among Dutton’s problem is Dutton himself.
As leader, the right-winger has shown himself pragmatic and managed to hold the party together. He is an asset in his home state of Queensland, where Labor is weak. But it is hard to see him making inroads in the south, especially in the progressive state of Victoria. Observers are looking to Aston to give an early reading.
Labor holds government by a very narrow margin, but as things stand now, Dutton’s only route to victory in 2025 would require the Albanese government – which faces some tough economic problems – to fail lamentably in the next two years.
Not impossible. Labor went into minority government in 2010 after a good win in 2007. Malcolm Turnbull turned Abbott’s 2013 landslide into a close result in 2016.
But if Albanese doesn’t squander power, the Liberals would be pitching for a two-stage comeback at best. And Frydenberg just might be back in the play.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra