Thursday, September 28, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Unfit for high office
Nobody should make the mistake of thinking Peter Dutton will change

Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax

The question of who precisely to blame for the fact that Donald Trump is president is a vexed one, so let’s not, at least for today, get into it too much. There is, however, one class of people whose role in the debacle is impossible to ignore: the Republican establishment.

It’s true that the overwhelming majority of senior Republicans backed other people for president as the primaries were happening. But, at some point, most of them decided they wouldn’t voice their concerns anymore, that their scorn had to be locked away. That Donald Trump had moved too close to the centre of politics and now had to be treated with a certain level of respect. And senior figures such as Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani were only too happy to tell the public: yes, Trump is our man.

My point is a simple one: that power warps the way we see the world. And, in particular, that as individual politicians move closer to the centre of power, for whatever combination of reasons, they are treated differently. Often, they are attributed qualities that nobody has ever previously suspected them of possessing.

In Australia, Exhibit A would have to be Tony Abbott. One of the remarkable things about the past two years is just how uniformly damning the opinion of Abbott has become. That is, of course, partly to do with how he has behaved as a backbencher. But there has also been a kind of shaking off of the magical thinking many of us engaged in when he first became prime minister: that the job would change him. That he would grow into it. That he was a smart man who had done what he needed to do as opposition leader, and we might now see a different leader emerge. I was as guilty of this as anyone.

The much more common-sense conclusion, and the one clearly correct in hindsight, was: Abbott’s term as prime minister was, and was always going to be, the natural extension of his time as opposition leader. He governed as he campaigned. He was not one man beforehand, another afterwards; he was Tony Abbott all along. He damaged Australian politics as opposition leader; he damaged it as PM; he is damaging it still, as a sorry and thoughtless soundbite-producing machine. Donald Trump has shown a similar consistency across his pre-presidential and presidential lives.

I say all this because I have just read Peter Dutton’s latest comments in response to a question from Ray Hadley about refugees from Nauru and Manus Island being resettled in the US. “They’re economic refugees; they got on a boat, paid a people smuggler a lot of money, and somebody once said to me that we’ve got the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart,” Dutton said.

He is lying. The people he is talking about have been found to be refugees – “not economic refugees”. To be recognised as a refugee, you have to face a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. See any mention of money there?

But you don’t even need to know the facts, because his falsehood is obvious as soon as you think through his statement. They are “economic refugees”, he says – people desperately seeking a better life for economic reasons – and apparently rich enough to be splashing out on Armani jeans and handbags. Surely it’s one or the other? Instead, Dutton is saying that these refugees possess thousands and thousands of dollars, face no persecution whatsoever and yet have decided to get on leaky boats, knowing they and their children may drown, all for the sole purpose of making still more money. Because why attack them for being insincere when you can attack them for being rich and insincere?

All this, by the way, on the basis of “somebody once said to me”. He’s the minister – he could find out. That is, if he cared about the truth. But he doesn’t. He has one aim, and it’s demonisation, whatever the contradictions. Remember when he attacked refugees both for taking Australian jobs and for being unemployed? This is, for him, a pattern. A pattern of deep political cynicism, a horrific lack of empathy, malice, and a disregard for truth.

He went on to talk about photos posted by refugees on the islands of “enjoying themselves outside this centre, by the beach and all the rest of it”, saying that, “We have been taken for a ride, I believe, by a lot of the advocates and people within Labor and the Greens who want you to believe this is a terrible existence … There is a very different scenario up on Nauru and Manus than people want you to believe.”

“Taken for a ride.” How exactly this squares with people burning themselves alive, I am not sure. Or with allegations of rape, and murder, and the sexual abuse of children. Or with consistent condemnations by the United Nations. Dutton has taken a recent report about a few photos and used it to paint over years of misery and harm. Again, it is evidence of a wilful blindness to human suffering, and a determination to make the rest of us blind as well.

I say all this today not only because comments like his deserve to be called out, but because he is often talked about – more and more in recent times – as a future prime minister. And as he moves closer to the centre of power, he will, almost inevitably, be afforded a different level of respect, and be talked about in a different way.

But the growing likelihood that Peter Dutton will one day be prime minister is not a reason to forget about his record. It is a reason to make sure that it is remembered, and that it is judged correctly. It is the single best guide we have to what sort of a leader he would be. The prospect horrifies me, and it should horrify you, too. 

Episode 4: Sinking popular causes
Richard Denniss on how and why politicians are taking popular causes and wrecking them, with special guests Ben Oquist and Geoff Cousins.


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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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