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Make Australia afraid again: must we have our own Trump moment for Peter Dutton to become PM? | Lech Blaine

PoliticsMake Australia afraid again: must we have our own Trump moment for Peter Dutton to become PM? | Lech Blaine

Those addicted to the news cycle often forget how passionately apathetic most Australian voters are about politics. As a result, Peter Dutton’s relatively small cliques of leftwing decriers and rightwing admirers overestimate how vividly the intricacies of his controversial career have registered with the general public. “I know fuck-all about him, mate,” says Mark, 44, a loyal LNP voter. “Seems pretty boring. I miss ScoMo. He had a personality.”

Mark is a tradie in outer-suburban Brisbane, with a Southern Cross tattoo and zero pity for boat people. Dutton should be right up his alley. But Mark doesn’t know him from the proverbial bar of soap. Nor do most of the people you ask who don’t pay all that much attention to politics. “I know of him,” says Sam, 29, a Lebanese-Australian Uber driver from Western Sydney. “But I don’t know him. He can’t be worse than ScoMo, bro.”

Disengaged voters occasionally see Dutton’s unsmiling face on the 6pm news, or hear his unpoetic monotone on radio news bulletins. They were never going to fall in love with him at first sight or soundbite. They certainly don’t see him as Australia’s saviour, as does shock jock Ray Hadley. But they don’t hate him in the way that his foes pray. “Dutton was a cop, wasn’t he?” asks Karen, 69, a Labor voter in the seat of Macquarie. “At least he had a real job. He’s not a career politician.”

When Dutton became the opposition leader, lefties were elated and complacent. Australia had too many feminists; too many migrants; too many millennial renters for Dutton to win an election. Labor MPs told Albanese to go easy on Dutton, fearing that he might get knifed before they could benefit. The consensus? Dutton was unelectable. Much like John Howard, and Tony Abbott. And indeed, Albanese himself.

Peter Dutton, right, with former prime minister Scott Morrison on 27 February, 2024. ‘He can’t be worse than ScoMo, bro,’ says Uber driver Sam. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

“The chattering classes thought that Dutton was great for Labor,” says Cheryl Kernot, the former Democrats leader turned Labor MP, whom Dutton defeated for the seat of Dickson in 2001. “I think they’re wrong. He reminds me of John Howard. Rat cunning. Hide of a rhino.”

A Coalition unshackled from the electoral pragmatism of regaining Wentworth and Kooyong might seem easier to beat in the short term. But Dutton doesn’t need to become prime minister to redraw the battlelines of Australian politics. His fight with Albanese over the suburbs and regions was always going to drag the political conversation rightwards: on race, immigration, gender and the pace of a transition away from fossil fuels. And in the seats that matter to Dutton, Labor is vulnerable to attack. “I’m not the prettiest bloke on the block,” he said, after Labor’s Tanya Plibersek compared his appearance to Voldemort “but I hope I’m going to be pretty effective”.

Dutton’s aim is to mercilessly disturb Albanese’s peacekeeping mission. To enflame the suspicion among swinging voters that Labor is more worried about delivering do-gooder platitudes than lowering their electricity bills, and more worried about social equality than the cost of living. To reframe Labor’s centrist agenda as a betrayal of the Australian way of life. Dutton’s raison d’être? Make Australia afraid again. Then he will offer himself as the lesser of two evils. A serious strongman for the age of anxiety.

Peter Dutton and his wife Kirilly Dutton at the 2023 Midwinter Ball at Parliament House in Canberra, 21 June, 2023. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Some Liberals worry that gung-ho Dutton lacks the soft touch required to rebuild John Howard’s broad church. He is popular with “the base”. But not so much with female professionals. Liberal MP Bridget Archer, from Tasmania, feels marginalised with fewer moderates around. “When I go to Canberra and sit in the party room with Peter Dutton, Tony Pasin and Alex Antic, I think: who are these people?’”

Archer claims that her views haven’t changed: the party itself is shifting to the right. “The Liberal party has become One Nation lite,” she tells me.

For Peter Dutton to succeed without the traditional blue-ribbon Liberal seats, he would need Australia to have its own Trump moment. But he would also need that electoral rebellion against the “elites” to occur in outer-metropolitan and provincial seats, not within the rural ones already overwhelmingly held by the Coalition.

“Conservatives believe that there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow in outer-suburban Sydney and Melbourne,” an ex-Liberal MP who lost to a “teal” tells me. “It doesn’t exist. I think it will take the poison pill of repeated election defeats to generate serious change.”

Former Queensland Liberal MP Wyatt Roy, meanwhile, differs from Dutton on some things, but likes him on a personal level. “I think people underestimate Peter,” Roy tells me. “He is very electable. Tony Abbott was prime minister. That was in 2013, not 30 years ago. And Dutton is a much more pragmatic and formidable politician than Abbott.”

Colleagues – past and present – paint a more thoughtful portrait of Dutton. To them, he is a listener, not a big-noter. A gentleman, not a sleazebag. A team player, willing to do the dirty work unpalatable to moderates. He rarely loses his temper, even during heated debates. Disciplined, risk-averse and across the details. Character traits totally at odds with the public image of a chest-beating populist. “Peter has a lot of good personal qualities that other people in the recent past haven’t had,” Liberal senator Andrew Bragg – a moderate from Sydney – tells me. “You might not always agree on an issue. But there’s no sociopathic behaviour going on.”

This other Dutton is often dismissed as a Liberal PR campaign to rehabilitate a new leader with baggage. But there are many non-Liberals with nothing to gain who say it too. “Abbott was an incredibly eccentric human being,” a senior Labor minister tells me. “Morrison was unhealthily self-obsessed. Dutton isn’t either of those things. He is more grounded in reality.”

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Opposition leader Peter Dutton watching the PM, Anthony Albanese, during question time on 6 February 2024. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

How does the private Dutton square with the public Dutton? It doesn’t, and it does. There is a method to the venom. Dutton is prepared to hurt certain groups of people to defend others. Being hated by complete strangers is the cost of winning. And beating Labor is more important than popularity. “You dirty lefties are too easy,” Dutton tweeted in 2011.

Dutton’s list of political hit jobs is arguably far more offensive than Abbott’s. But they served a calculated purpose. Abbott just had foot-in-mouth disease. The mad monk’s Holy Trinity – Jesus, the Queen and the ovaries of Australian women – was too idiosyncratic. Dutton’s fixations – crime, race and national security – are timeless political issues. Under the right circumstances, his lack of compassion and charisma might be irrelevant. “People never spoke about John Howard’s charisma,” said Dutton in 2017. “At many times during John Howard’s career, he was deeply unpopular.”

Dutton is imitating Howard. But this is a more reactionary conservatism, with much less emphasis on economics and much less subtlety on race relations. He swapped Howard’s dog whistle for a foghorn. Love him or loathe him, Howard was the master of understatement. He worried Australians in one breath and comforted them in the next.

“Peter is not remotely in the same league as John Howard,” Malcolm Turnbull tells me. “Even his best friend wouldn’t compare them.”

There has been no ongoing attempt by Dutton to redefine himself the way that Howard did throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Howard wanted to rearrange the way that people related to money and to the country. In the meantime, he provided support for Keating’s economic reforms. Howard failed, and adjusted, and won. Through trial and error, he learned how to package his individualistic vision as part of a patriotic narrative.

Dutton is the paperback version of Howard: the same message but less weight. Economics is not his emotional priority, beyond a tribal allegiance to tax loopholes for the rich; penalties for the poor; and hostility to trade unions. This is why he spends most of the time fighting culture wars. His grievances are well practised and sincerely held. But the moment he moves off his preferred turf, Dutton becomes clumsy and unconvincing.

“Peter is not an original thinker,” says Turnbull. “I cannot recall him ever having a positive idea in the times when I was with him in government.”

Dutton is the anti-ideas man. Uncreative, perhaps. But this does give him an incredible clarity as a politician. The opposition leader is playing Whac-A-Mole against Labor. He is banking on history to keep repeating itself. And that he can smash the agents of change with the cat-like reflexes of Pat Rafter.

One moderate who doesn’t underestimate Dutton is former Liberal party attorney general George Brandis, an old factional foe also from Queensland. He retired from politics after losing a furious power struggle with Dutton over the Home Affairs portfolio. Brandis suggests that Dutton’s “slightly slow voice” and lack of intellectual flair lulled Turnbull into a false sense of security. “I think Dutton has taken a while to live down this ‘he’s just a copper from Queensland’ image,” says Brandis. “Well, he was a police officer. He is from Queensland. That doesn’t make him dumb. And he isn’t.”

Quarterly Essay 93 – Bad Cop: Peter Dutton’s Strongman Politics, by Lech Blaine.

Brandis puts Dutton in a separate category from Abbott on the Liberal party side, and from Julia Gillard and Albanese on the Labor side. He believes they would have been satisfied with being a senior government minister. The prime ministership was a nice prize but not their sole priority.

Brandis views Dutton more in the mould of Howard, Turnbull and Kevin Rudd: politicians consumed with desire for the top job from the minute they entered parliament. “The thing about Peter … is he’s very ambitious,” says Brandis. “He really, really badly wants to be prime minister. He’s very purposeful. Very methodical. And very strategic.”

Dutton is a conundrum then. A power-hungry strongman who isn’t a clinical narcissist. A shrewd establishment politician who brazenly plays the race card. Seemingly extreme. Yet every single thing that he does is calculated to achieve his dream of becoming prime minister. It is not totally impossible he will get there one day.

This is an edited extract of Lech Blaine’s Quarterly Essay Bad Cop: Peter Dutton’s Strongman Politics published Monday 18 March. He will discuss the essay at nationwide events.

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