ANALYSIS

New Liberal leader Peter Dutton has a dilemma: can he look nice?

Image matters in politics. So, can Peter Dutton change his? Pictures: AAP, Keegan Carroll
Image matters in politics. So, can Peter Dutton change his? Pictures: AAP, Keegan Carroll

The Liberal leader looks like a tough guy. You can't avoid it. He does. Peter Dutton is a former policeman who looks like a bit of a bruiser.

But it's just a look and not necessarily the way he really is. The toughest bouncers might have hearts of gold.

All the same, image matters in politics. So, can he change his?

Politicians have tried before. Get a hat to get ahead, is the advice many have taken.

Picture Scott Morrison in any one of many baseball caps, with slogans like "Beefy's" that might have appealed to those pie-munchers he imagined as his people.

"I don't have an Akubra, mate, so I'm just going to bring my Sharks hat," he once said (perhaps not quite truly because he has been photographed in an Akubra).

So has the new Prime Minister - looking awkward and inauthentic (the buzz word of the moment), not to mention slightly unshaved.

The image-makers to whom The Canberra Times talked all said that Mr Dutton had to be authentic. He has to be true to himself, is invariably the advice. If he's a daggy dad, so be it.

One advised strongly against Akubras, particularly the brand new ones which spin-doctors seem to buy for politicians to put on just before they get out of the car in country Australia.

Authentic? Anthony Albanese as a different image. Picture: AAP

Authentic? Anthony Albanese as a different image. Picture: AAP

So any softened image needs to be consistent with the person he really is.

Image is not just about clothes. It's about true personality and belief, according to Simon Banks, who was chief of staff or deputy chief of staff to three federal Labor leaders.

Mr Dutton's image is one of hard talking, as the former minister for immigration and border protection who talked tough about human beings who might have been in difficult circumstances. "He has a more black and white way of talking about things," Mr Banks said. "The way he chooses to behave is more important."

But times - and governments - change. "The image of a politician has to be something which people can relate to," Mr Banks added.

Mr Banks thinks that the election result was a vote for a less "black and white way", and more for a consensual, consultative style of leadership - so a more colourful tie or a nattier suit won't be enough to soften the Dutton image.

All the same, clothes do matter. Angela Merkel, for example, reinforced her reputation for steadiness through her wardrobe. She used colour but it was in unflashy trouser suits. "You have a consistency in her image - reliable, predictable, steady - which played into her political and personal narrative, and that was very successful."

Which brings us to the big observation: women get scrutinised more than men, despite the current microscope on Mr Dutton.

Peter Dutton's image is one of hard talking. Picture: AAP

Peter Dutton's image is one of hard talking. Picture: AAP

Julia Gillard's hair and dress were pored over daily and ad nauseum when and before she was prime minister.

In a neat combination of snobbery and sexism, she was likened to "The Member for David Jones" for wearing what presumably was a too suburban black-and-white check coat (though the jibe did actually come from another woman).

"It's not an equal playing field. Men get a far easier time than women," Mr Banks said.

Having said that, there has been copious comment on Mr Albanese's trendy glasses and slimline look. When Malcolm Turnbull appeared on Q&A in a leather jacket, the jacket was the talking point. Appearance does matter.

One international image consultant who has given advice to "captains of industry and government" said the test of any Dutton change of image would be on weekends. In parliament, he should dress formally out of respect for the citizens and the country he represents.

On this view, the true Peter Dutton will appear away from the corridors of power, in the way he relates to ordinary people. It's not just a matter of just changing the colour of a tie - or a hat.

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It's true that Anthony Albanese did change his image by changing his weight and his glasses - but the image expert's view is that this was an "authentic" change - he lost weight during COVID.

The tell-tale sign of inauthenticity is when a politician suddenly appears in a tailored, expensive immaculate suit but Mr Albanese's seems to be off-the-shelf (which seems more authentic).

Mr Dutton told The Guardian four years ago: "I think some leaders fall into the trap of abandoning principles or changing to somebody that they think people want them to be, and I think that's a huge mistake."

"Australians are pretty fair minded," Simon Banks said.

"They will take someone on their merits. You've got three years to understand who he is.

"It's trite but true - be yourself".

This story The Dutton dilemma: can he look nice? first appeared on The Canberra Times.