The Politics    Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Out of his depth

By Sean Kelly

Out of his depth
Peter Dutton does not understand his position and is incapable of doing his job

Richard B Spencer, an anti-Semite and a racist, saluted those attending his conference this weekend by saying “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” He told those gathered that “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

CNN later held a panel discussion, over which ran the banner headline (technically known as a chyron) reading “ALT-RIGHT FOUNDER QUESTIONS IF JEWS ARE PEOPLE”. The panel proceeded to discuss whether Donald Trump should distance himself from Spencer’s group.

There are all sorts of debates tendrilling off from this, including whether CNN should have run that banner at all. But the key point I want to home in on today is that we are now seeing a particular type of hate speech moving closer to the centre of public debate in America.

Explaining where that hate speech comes from is complex. Explaining how it is suddenly so prominent, and a topic for debate on CNN, is simple: Donald Trump got elected. Trump, during his campaign, deliberately and strategically played to the fears and beliefs of far right-wing groups sometimes euphemistically referred to as “the alt-right”, sometimes referred to as “white supremacists”. He employed anti-Semitic symbolism in his campaign ads, and his racist pledges – like banning Muslim immigration – are well known.

When someone in a position of power says something, their words have the potential to shift what is seen as acceptable. When that person is elected to a position of leadership, that potential is magnified. Trump gave sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit support to these views; the media are now looking at the views that Trump holds or supports; these views therefore have a currency they would not have had if Trump had not been elected, or if he had never supported these views. This is a fact Trump himself seems to recognise. Since the election he has been careful not to repeat most of his more divisive pledges; a video released this week simply skips talk of Mexicans or Muslims.

The point I am making is a simple one: politicians have a different responsibility to the rest of us when they speak.

Every politician worth a cent understands this. Treasurers, for example, very quickly learn that they cannot simply spew forth a stream-of-consciousness discussion of the current merits of the national economy, for the very good reason that what they say can affect the economy of which they speak. In this respect, we are a little hard on politicians: we expect them to speak to us honestly, “authentically”, but to be reasonably circumspect in what they say. Still, these are adults, who are paid a great deal of money and given massive responsibility; awareness of the complexities of their position is not too much to ask.

On Friday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Andrew Bolt that Malcolm Fraser had made mistakes in bringing some people into Australia in the 1970s. Dutton didn’t simply get there himself – Bolt had said as much himself just a few questions earlier: “Malcolm Fraser got the Lebanese refugee programme wrong, opened the door to people that his immigration minister at the time said do not.” Dutton, quite literally, took the words out of Andrew Bolt’s mouth.

And this is where we get to the difficulty I have with Peter Dutton. It seems as though he fundamentally does not grasp the dimensions of his job. It is a role that comes with one of the more serious responsibilities in our nation. He is failing to acquit those responsibilities, and that has consequences for us all.

Andrew Bolt saying that Malcolm Fraser made mistakes is one thing. He is a commentator.

It might be permissible for others to make the same case – say, an academic. Personally, I would disagree with them on the evidence presented. The comparatively tiny number of people of Lebanese Muslim heritage charged with terrorist offences that Peter Dutton points to is not nearly enough to say the whole community should be condemned. I question the premise of the accusation. Even if you were to accept the existence of a problem, saying that Fraser made a mistake that led to crimes several generations later avoids asking the crucial question: at what point does Australia begin to take responsibility? If young men feel alienated and hateful decades down the track, does any sensible person really believe Australia’s own policies over those decades have played no role? Saying it is all Fraser’s fault seems to me a sign of breathtaking immaturity. It is the response of a child.

But the fact I don’t agree doesn’t mean somebody can’t raise a question about whether our immigration system has always worked as it is mean to. It is pretty obvious that some countries handle immigration better than others. Asking those questions, comparing systems, will always happen. There will be those who say that Dutton is simply trying to have an “honest conversation”.

But Peter Dutton is not an academic. He is not a bureaucrat. He is not a commentator. This is not a question of “free speech”.

When he speaks, his words carry a force greater than all of those roles combined. This is because he is in a position of power. It is also because he has been elected. He speaks not simply as a Coalition minister, but as a minister of Australia. He is a spokesperson for this country, and the message he has delivered this week on behalf of all of us is blunt and unmistakable: if you are a Lebanese-Muslim who came to Australia under Malcolm Fraser, then we made a mistake in letting you in.

Coming from the minister, those words are a gut punch to an entire community.

It is not simply Dutton’s inability to reflect upon the power of his words that should worry all of us. It is that his words are in conflict with what should be his job. As immigration minister, his role is in part to foster a successful society, full of the diversity that has long been one of the prides of this country.

When the immigration minister tells Australians that a particular immigrant group should not be here, he is – like Trump – giving currency to a set of views. Surely he knows that any nuance in his message – if it exists – will be missed. His comments help normalise a wider range of racism.

Here is the director of the Institute for Religion, Politics and Society, Joshua Roose, in the Guardian: “All it will [do] is further marginalise people and it could lead to attacks on public transport and more discrimination that will likely increase as this sort of rhetoric increases over time.” That should be a gut punch to all of us who believe Australia should be a diverse country.

And of course there is the helping-the-terrorists argument. This is repeated so often as to have become a cliché, but here is one expert on Donald Trump’s clash-of-civilisations rhetoric: “What Trump and his followers do not get is that their inflammatory rhetoric plays into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda, who labor hard to convince skeptical Muslims that the West is waging a war against Islam.” Dutton is not as ridiculous as Trump, but his comments play into precisely the same concerns. If the government wants to keep Australia safe, this is not the way to do it.

This is not a question of honest conversations, or “free speech”, or political correctness. This is a matter of a minister who is or is not capable of doing his job. Right now it seems pretty clear Dutton is not up to it. Either he has failed to understand the responsibilities of his role, or – worse – he understands perfectly his role, and has failed completely to fulfil those responsibilities. 

I am well aware that immigration ministers often attract criticism and scorn. Australia’s harsh asylum seeker policies guarantee it. As a result, that contempt is often taken to be meaningless. But Dutton does not simply implement policy and defend it, thereby attracting predictable controversy. On several occasions he has made comments that undermine the peaceful diversity that underpins our society. He is not doing a difficult job well. He is doing a difficult job badly. Malcolm Turnbull defended him today. He should not have.


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Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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