The Politics    Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Wreck and ruin

By Rachel Withers

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton holds a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, November 15, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Peter Dutton is doing his darndest to tear our already fraying social fabric apart

We should all be alarmed at the findings of the latest “Mapping Social Cohesion” report. The annual survey shows our sense of belonging has fallen to its lowest level since the survey began, driven by crippling financial pressures and concerns about inequality, with the polarisation of the referendum debate acting as an accelerant. The survey was conducted in July, before war broke out in the Middle East, so you can assume that cohesion would rate even lower now. Racism remains a serious problem amid fears about migration levels, despite most respondents agreeing that multiculturalism is a good thing. With local and international pressures unlikely to ease for the foreseeable future, it is incumbent on all leaders to do what they can to ease tensions – or at the very least, not to inflame them. But in every area, Peter Dutton is doing what he can to pour fuel on the fire – lying, dividing, fearmongering and stoking hatred, all while having the gall to demand Anthony Albanese cancel his international travel plans to “repair social cohesion”. The PM’s fiery outburst in response to the opposition leader’s games in Question Time today was entirely justified. Can Dutton really care so little for the nation he seeks to lead?

Recently on social media, I likened Dutton to a “babushka doll of shit”. It’s as though, any time you think he cannot possibly get any smaller or nastier, he outdoes himself. I first coined this term when he called for pro-Palestinian protesters to be “deported”. But the Coalition’s behaviour this week has hit dizzying new lows, as it seeks to politicise everything from the High Court ruling on immigration detention to Penny Wong’s use of the words “ceasefire” and “Islamophobia”. It was notable that Dutton called a rare Canberra press conference this morning, seeking to further hammer the alarmist talking points we have been hearing all week and to call for parliament to continue sitting until Labor passes legislation regarding the release of people from detention (as Guardian Australia noted, he hasn’t held a presser in Canberra since late July).

Much of the past few days have been dominated by the Coalition’s shameless attacks over the release of the detainees, prompted by the High Court ruling that indefinite detention is unlawful. Dutton and co have repeatedly sought to make this into a Labor blunder, or something that was done at the whim of “left-wing advocate” Immigration Minister Andrew Giles, despite knowing full well (and being repeatedly reminded) that Labor argued against their release in court. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said of Liberal sparring partner Jane Hume on Sunrise this morning, “The idea that it is open to the Australian government to simply legislate away a High Court decision is not the way our Constitution works, and I hope to God Jane understands that.” Indeed, she does, as do her colleagues. Shadow immigration minister Dan Tehan has asked question after question about the release of the “hardcore criminals” – not all of whom are criminals – grossly probing whether released detainees get “taxpayer-funded” housing, healthcare and welfare. As Guardian Australia’s Amy Remeikis has written at length, this criticism is entirely ridiculous – detention is taxpayer funded, and it is a longstanding policy that those who are released received support – while many note that it would be foolish to release them into the community without support anyway.

The entire episode has been revolting. But as he does, Dutton took things up a notch in Question Time today with a galling motion lamenting the “breakdown in social cohesion”, rolling his concern over the release of “hardcore criminals” and his intentionally one-sided condemnation of anti-Semitism into a motion admonishing the PM. It was, as many noted, like the arsonist complaining about the fire, and Albanese was rightfully furious, ripping into the man who is doing all he can to tear up what is left of our social fabric. “The weaponisation [of], or attempt to weaponise, anti-Semitism in this chamber and make it a partisan issue is frankly beyond contempt,” the PM said, noting that leaders have a role in times of division to seek to unite rather than divide. “To come in here and move this resolution and link anti-Semitism with the decision of the High Court is beyond contempt.”

As is often the way when Peter Dutton is involved, the day’s events have come to resemble a nesting doll of horrors. Dutton hadn’t attempted this particular stunt when I started writing this column, although it was clear from this morning’s press conference that he was headed somewhere foul. “I fear there will be a significant act within our country that will cause harm to people in the Jewish community, or in the community more broadly, at a time when temperatures are rising,” he told reporters, lamenting the breakdown of social cohesion, while making no reference to Islamophobia or the fears of the Muslim community. “The prime minister should be showing strong leadership to lower those temperatures and he’s completely failed that test,” he added, as he sought turn the heat up a few extra notches. It’s not clear how much more our society can take, as pain increasingly turns to anger. But by now it’s crystal clear that there is always a worse Dutton waiting to emerge, just when you thought he couldn’t sink any lower.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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