The Guardian • Issue #2009


New Coalition leaders seek to “soften” image, but their past betrays them

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2009

“Peter Dutton has […] a soft heart. Australian voters will be very surprised by the Peter Dutton they will see.” These were the words of former employment minister Stuart Robert before he entered the Liberal Party meeting room last Monday morning ahead of the leadership contest where Dutton was elected unopposed.

Robert’s words were a deliberate attempt to paint Dutton as the opposite of his predecessor, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Morrison developed (rightfully so) a reputation for being smug, uncaring, selfish, and out of touch. While Morrison’s words and actions, such as taking trips to Hawaii during the Black Summer bushfires, betrayed him, his own colleagues rarely had nice things to say about him. It is hard to forget the words of soon-to-be former NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells who qualified Morrison as “unfit for office”, an “autocrat”, and a “bully” with “no moral compass”.

However, the lengths at which Liberal politicians are going to describe Dutton as “misunderstood” aren’t just to distance him from Morrison; Dutton has earned a reputation of being – as Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan noted – “an extremist” all on his own.

A small list of incredibly insensitive (to put it mildly) things Dutton has said and done include: stoking fear about “African gangs” in Melbourne; accusing his Labor opponent Ali France during the 2019 Federal election of “using her disability as an excuse” for not having moved to the marginal seat of Dickson; Qualify Lebanese immigrant under the Fraser government as a mistake; Promote special visas for white South African farmers while overseeing a program of indefinite offshore detention of asylum seekers and refugees that featured a high number of suicides. So numerous are these incidents that at the 2019 Australian Federal Election News Corp ran in The Sunday Mail the now-infamous “ ‘he’s no monster’” headline where Dutton’s wife – Kirilly Dutton – spoke about her husband’s human side.

Dutton is aware of the image problem he suffers too. Upon his election as the new Liberal Leader, Dutton immediately acknowledged that he made a mistake in boycotting the Stolen Generations apology, with the weak excuse that “at the time I believed that the apology should be given when the problems were resolved. And the problems are not resolved.”

However, Dutton couldn’t help himself defend some of the decisions he made by doing what he knows best: stoking fear in the Australian public. Speaking of his role as home affairs minister, Dutton claimed he was “ultimately able to cancel the visas of […] just over 6000 criminals.” Further stating that he “deport [people] from our country” who “had committed sexual offences against women and children, committed murder, serious criminal acts.” These claims should not be taken at face value. Everyone should challenge the veracity of these statements as Dutton has a reputation for revealing information such as Chinese boats and refugees coming to our shores at what appears to be incredibly opportune times.

While Dutton himself has an image to repair from his twenty years in Parliament, the Liberal Party is attempting to undo all the ill-will it generated in its near-decade in government. Here, the election of Sussan Ley as deputy Liberal leader is a gesture indicating the party’s commitment to taking women’s rights seriously. Speaking to the media, Ley stated that:

“We know that we didn’t receive the support of all women at the last election, and my message to the women of Australia is we hear you. […] We’re listening. We’re talking. And we are determined to earn back your trust and your faith.”

Noting that the above rhetoric is welcomed, history indicates that voters should be cautious about messaging the Liberal Party has when it comes to the concerns of women. While Ley has gone on the record to promote the idea of affirmative action within her party, she can hardly be said to be listening to voters. As Minister for the Environment, Ley approved three coalmine extensions in the space of a month last year. Additionally, according to Michael West Media “Ley rejected the proposed Asian Renewable Energy Hub […], which would see the first steps to establishing a Green Hydrogen manufacturing industry in Western Australia” designating “the project ‘clearly unacceptable.’ ” It is also important to remind readers that Ley stood down as Health Minister in 2017 over misuse of taxpayer-funded entitlements which included a trip to the US for which she charged taxpayers more than $10,000 per day. Given that independents won seats off the Liberals because of their policy platforms on climate and corruption, it will be interesting to see where Ley votes when proposals for climate action and a federal ICAC come before parliament.

The Liberals weren’t the only party electing new leadership. The Nationals – the Liberal’s Coalition partner – ousted Barnaby Joyce in favour of David Littleproud. In rejecting Joyce, Littleproud has stated that the key to winning elections wasn’t by “lurching left or lurching right” but by “being in the sensible centre.” Littleproud’s proof of this, indicated to reporters, was the National’s commitment to net zero by 2050. However, readers should also remember Littleproud’s words in 2019 when, as natural disasters minister, he stated that he didn’t “know if climate change is manmade” with there being “extremes from both sides” of the debate and ridiculously claiming that Australians have been “adapting to a changing climate since we first settled this country.”

Whether or not the Coalition, now in opposition, will, in Dutton’s words, target “forgotten Australians in the suburbs” remains to be seen. Dutton further stated that “I want our country to support aspiration and reward hard work, [and] take proper care of those Australians who, short term or long term, can’t take care of themselves.” It is an interesting if revealing strategy. While Dutton may be attempting to soften his personal image, it is not reflected in his immediate strategic rhetoric. The Liberals hemorrhaged seats, most notably in Sydney and Melbourne’s affluent areas where “socially conscious” wealthy voters wanted immediate action on climate change. By appealing to “the suburbs”, it appears that Dutton may soon enough continue the culture wars of his predecessor, attacking marginal ALP seats. While the future is unclear, history is revealing, and we must not forget the past as we move into the future, or we run the risk of repeating the last nine years.

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