The Politics    Thursday, April 6, 2023

The gravedigger

By Rachel Withers

The top half of Peter Dutton’s face can be seen, against a blue background.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton at Parliament House, April 5, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

It’s time to call Peter Dutton out for the soulless wrecker that he is

Let’s get one thing straight. Despite his insistence that the prime minister is being “divisive” over the voice to parliament, Peter Dutton is the person most responsible for dividing the nation here. The Liberal leader has turned what could have been a “moment of unity” into a “race-based culture war”, all to suit his own political ends, to shore up his leadership and potentially “chalk up a win” in a year filled with Liberal losses. “This is more about his calculations about Liberal versus Labor rather than what’s good for the country,” said Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson, in this morning’s must-listen interview. “He doesn’t mind chucking Indigenous Australians and the future of the country under the bus so he can preserve his miserable political hide.” Dutton is the “undertaker preparing the grave to bury Uluru”, Pearson said. Anthony Albanese echoed those comments, dismissing the Liberals’ claim that they were “up for discussion”, and pointing out that there was nothing consistent about Dutton’s stance. It’s clearer than ever that Dutton is exactly who he always seemed to be: a heartless, cynical man who does not give a damn about Indigenous Australians, except as they can be used to further his political ambitions. No wonder former minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has quit the party, telling The West Australian that he no longer believes in what the Liberals have become.

It was hard to keep up with the Morrison-level lies spilling from Dutton’s lips during yesterday’s presser, with the Opposition leader “tying himself in knots” over his contradictory stance. His claim that this will be a “Canberra voice” has been condemned, with many pointing out that it came from countless hours of regional dialogues. (AM host Sabra Lane did her best to call that out in her interview with Dutton, quoting Pat Anderson.) “This is not just about a voice of the prime minister, as Peter Dutton has wanted to play here. This is about the First Nations people who gathered at Uluru after much dialogue across the country,” Assistant Minister for Indigenous Australians Malarndirri McCarthy told the ABC. Dutton’s comments diminished their “extraordinary” work, Albanese added. As others have pointed out, the Liberals’ position isn’t even consistent, with Dutton attacking the idea of a national voice, when that apparently remains his party’s policy, albeit a legislated one. (When asked directly yesterday if he would support a legislated national voice, Dutton wouldn’t answer. And he couldn’t keep his story straight on support for constitutional recognition either, with many pointing out that symbolic recognition is not what has been asked for.) Even his own MPs seem confused.

Dutton claimed, without evidence, that the attorney-general and solicitor-general had counselled against allowing the voice to advise executive government, and said that “respectful debate” was needed, while describing the likely members of a national voice as “24 academics”. (As lawyer Eddie Synot notes, the idea of a voice comprising 24 representatives comes from his own party’s report, which he keeps demanding be followed when it comes to local and regional voices.) But perhaps most galling are his claims that he has spoken to many opposing Indigenous voices on the ground (people he never names), which have today been dismissed by the leaders who make up Empowered Communities. “Mr Dutton did not respond to our request to meet in Canberra, or to our invitation to visit our regions so we could show him why constitutional recognition through Voice is the change we need – linking from local and regional to national,” they wrote, noting he was ignoring the vast majority and spreading misinformation.

As for his claims that Labor wouldn’t negotiate or work with him, the government argues he hadn’t tried at all. “The prime minister has met with the leader of the Opposition seven times … and not at one point did the leader of the Opposition offer any changes to the amendments [or] changes to the words,” said Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney yesterday.

It is frankly ludicrous that sections of the media entertained the idea that the new Opposition leader was acting in “good faith” about the voice for so long. As Crikey notes, there is a reason no one is surprised that he has come out against it, binding his shadow cabinet too. This, after all, is the man who walked out on the apology to the Stolen Generations (oh, but he’s sorry he did that), claimed Victorians were scared to go out at night due to “African gang violence”, started a cruel war against the Biloela family and compared their children to “anchor babies”, and suggested that women in detention were “trying it on” in claiming they had been raped. It’s laughable that anyone spent any time humouring the idea that he was anything other than an arch-conservative, biding his time and chipping away at the voice, while pretending he suddenly cared about Indigenous outcomes.

The political games Dutton is choosing to engage in are already having real-world consequences, as Guardian Australia’s Indigenous affairs editor Lorena Allam writes, with the “grassroots people” he loves to invoke already facing heightened racism in the debate. It will only grow more divisive. “Now that the Coalition has finally declared its hand, we will see exactly how fair, respectful and safety-conscious of vulnerable Indigenous grassroots people the campaigners will show themselves to be,” she writes. Asked on AM this morning if he cared about being on the wrong side of history once more, Dutton waffled, making it clear he did not. Dutton doesn’t care if this ugly debate divides the nation. In fact, it’s obvious that he would prefer it.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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