The Politics    Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Same same but Dutton

By Rachel Withers

Image of Peter Dutton addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, November 26, 2021. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Peter Dutton addressing the National Press Club in Canberra, November 26, 2021. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The electorate won’t forget who Peter Dutton is, no matter how much the Liberal Party tries to rebrand him

It seems the deed is done. Arch-conservative Peter Dutton, perhaps the most divisive figure in the Liberal Party, is set to be its next leader, with no one planning to stand against him, while Sussan Ley is likely to be his deputy. It’s not clear if Dutton is merely a placeholder, a leader not expected to make it the next election. Perhaps he’s there to be a wrecker, a Tony Abbott–style Opposition leader who will undermine the Labor government, despite a clear call from the electorate for an end to the divisions that have riven federal politics. In any case, it’s hard to imagine he could win back government, in 2025 or ever, with the party already bleeding votes over its rightward lurch and toxic leadership. The remaining moderates, having marginalised themselves almost out of existence (if only Josh Frydenberg had listened to calls to challenge for the leadership), have no power to stop this, and they are already doing their best to rehabilitate Dutton’s image, promising that he’s not as bad as he seems. But does the party really expect Australians to forget everything this warmongering, dog-whistling hardliner has done?

It almost seems unnecessary to list it all, but Peter Dutton is the sort of politician who has done so many fucked-up things that it’s hard to remember them all (though perhaps that’s the point). He’s the man who walked out on Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, one of the only MPs to do so. He was the minister caught on a hot mic joking about Pacific nations facing rising seas due to climate change, and who tore down Malcolm Turnbull for daring to do anything about it. He’s the guy – as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews reminded us yesterday – who falsely claimed that Victorians were scared to go out due to “African gang violence”, and who incorrectly blamed teenager Laa Chol’s death on such gangs in a bid to score a point. He suggested that white South African visas should be “fast-tracked”, and described deporting a NZ minor as “taking the trash out”. He was slammed for accusing his Labor opponent of using her disability as an “excuse”, and had to apologise to journalist Samantha Maiden for labelling her “a mad fucking witch”, in a text message that he accidentally sent to Maiden herself.

He was the home affairs minister who started that cruel war against the Biloela family (they are now finally going home), who compared their children Tharunicaa and Kopika to “anchor babies”, and suggested that sick refugees could steal our hospital beds. He’s the guy who famously said that women in detention were “trying it on” in claiming they had been raped as a ploy to get to Australia for an abortion, and who sued an activist for defamation over the suggestion that this comment made him a “rape apologist” – and lost.

In recent months, he’s stoked war with China and suggested that Labor was Beijing’s “pick” for the election, thereby alienating Chinese voters and politicising national security, in what even The Australian saw as ludicrous posturing considering the state of Australia’s defences. (Not that he’s ever been particularly competent as a minster.) He’s the sort of man about whom sympathetic publications run profiles declaring he is “not a monster” – a real quote from his wife. He is so unpopular in places like Kooyong that Frydenberg’s increasingly desperate campaign reportedly discussed printing flyers with the message “Vote Ryan, Get Dutton”, knowing that Dutton was as toxic as Scott Morrison in the inner-city seat.

It barely seems necessary – and yet. Elements of the Liberal Party seem to think this can all be waved away, that they can introduce a “new Dutton” just as Scott Morrison offered to become a changed man. Many Liberals obviously hope that Dutton won’t last, but in the meantime they’re having to pretend he’s not the worst choice they could possibly make, given that Dutton has the numbers in the now even more conservative party. But do the remaining moderates really want to go on standing by toxic leadership, tacitly endorsing a rightward drift that has almost cleaned them out? Now would clearly be the time for them to finally take the stand they didn’t take while in government – they have nothing to lose, and plenty to repair in the teal seats they hope to win back one day. How will the moderate wing of the party ever rebuild itself if it allows Peter Dutton to take the leadership without so much as a fight?

At this stage it seems there is little the moderates can do to stop Dutton becoming Opposition leader. (This is something that many progressives are not so quietly celebrating, believing the party will only be delivering more teal independents in future; the same goes for keeping Barnaby Joyce, tweeted former independent MP Tony Windsor.) But in trying to convince the public that there could be a new Dutton, or that Dutton isn’t so bad, the remaining moderates are choosing to dig their own graves. One imagines that Josh Frydenberg now regrets not challenging his deeply unpopular leader in September, even if he wasn’t sure he had the numbers. And one can only imagine how much the remaining moderates will come to regret letting an even more unlikeable leader waltz right in.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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