The Politics    Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Stunt man

By Rachel Withers

Peter Dutton looks down, laughing

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during Question Time, March 22, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

People wanted Dutton to condemn Liberals who flirt with Nazism. Instead, they got political games.

Peter Dutton wants you to know that he has been to a lot of Holocaust museums. The Opposition leader was incensed in Question Time yesterday, after Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus accused him of “complete silence” over Victorian Liberal MP Moira Deeming’s attendance at an anti-trans rally supported by neo-Nazis. “I want to join with the attorney general in the remarks that he’s made so far as they go to condemnation of any use of Nazi symbols or the salute,” Dutton said. “It is equally condemned that it would be used for political purposes in this place. It is a very poor reflection on you,” he added, while at no point condemning those in his party who had flirted with such movements. Dutton came armed with a counterattack this morning, springing on Labor a private member’s bill to outlaw the display of Nazi symbols under the Commonwealth criminal code, clearly seeking to disrupt government business to debate it. Leader of the House Tony Burke did not take the bait, insisting that it did not mean Labor was against the sentiment, as the government used its numbers to vote down the suspension of standing orders. “No government ever would have been in a circumstance in [which] something like this was moved and was in a position to vote for it,” Burke said, reiterating that the division on the procedural should not be seen “as evidence of division in the need to oppose the use of these symbols”. Who is really playing politics with Nazism here?

Tony Burke said he would “make no criticism of the leader of the Opposition” for bringing on today’s motion. But I will. It was abundantly clear that Dutton wanted to get back at the government, forcing Labor to vote against a motion ostensibly aimed at banning Nazi symbols, never mind that it could risk creating the impression of division in parliament over the issue. There was no way the government was going to wave through a rushed change to the criminal code that had just been sprung on it, and which had not been through cabinet or any kind of review. As online “manosphere” expert Simon Copland writes, it’s not even clear that outlawing such symbols is a good strategy, with deradicalisation the far more important task. There’s no doubt this was a pointless political stunt from the Opposition (why not work with the government on drafting something if you seriously care about this?) and there is major irony to the fact that Dutton accused Dreyfus of playing politics with the issue when that is all that the Opposition leader himself seems capable of doing.

Dutton did, at least, condemn Nazi symbolism – which is more than his predecessor could do the last time neo-Nazis took over the steps of the Victorian Parliament. But a “gotcha” motion to amend the criminal code is not what we need from the Liberal leader right now. What people are asking for is for the Liberal Party to distance itself from its fringe members who associate with the far right, something the new Victorian Liberal leader, John Pesutto, is trying to do. The most useful thing Dutton can do is make clear that members of his party are not to associate with far-right extremists, and that there will be no place for them in the Coalition if they do. And that is something Dutton still has not done: he has failed to denounce Deeming, or to back Pesutto’s attempts to expel her. In fact, Liberal senator Sarah Henderson has been personally lobbying Pesutto not to expel her, even though she may be doing serious damage to the party’s chances in the Aston byelection. As Dreyfus said yesterday, “The leader of the Opposition is the most senior Liberal in Australia. Moira Deeming is one of his own, and he’s been silent, and he’s done nothing. This speaks volumes about the leadership qualities of the leader of the Opposition. And Australians will take note.”

While the pushback against anti-trans campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull and her neo-Nazi friends has been heartening (the footage of Keen- Minshull being drowned out by counter-protesters at an event in Hobart yesterday is worth a watch), it’s clear we have a serious problem with right-wing extremism in this country. LGBTQI+ protesters were yesterday evening pelted with rocks and bottles by a large mob outside a church where One Nation’s Mark Latham had been giving a speech, with Crikey reporting that Christian Lives Matter group members had foreshadowed violence online in the lead-up to the event. (One member filmed himself saying “go there tomorrow and you fucking shake them up and you drag them by their fucking head”.) National security experts have been warning about far-right extremists for years, not that Dutton has been open to hearing it. The fact that we have neo-Nazis popping up around the place, particularly in Victoria, is an issue that deserves serious attention. And it’s not served by Peter Dutton passing wedging motions, trying to rush through changes to the criminal code simply to embarrass Labor.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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