Dutton for punishment

There is a simple reason Peter Dutton is still in cabinet. It is not for his competence or his famous rapport with the department. It is certainly not for his intelligence.

Peter Dutton remains in cabinet as a reminder that Malcolm Turnbull will not be swayed by compassion on the issue of asylum seekers. He will not attempt to clear Manus or Nauru, despite the terrible abuses that take place there.

Dutton remains immigration minister to give succour to those in the party room worried that the bad old days might be over, that asylum seekers might be treated with dignity and the useful toxicity might be bled from the refugee debate.

This week, Turnbull went so far as to say he was “concerned” by conditions in offshore detention camps. An ordinary person might be more than “concerned” by state-sponsored internment camps that have been condemned by the United Nations and the country’s own Human Rights Commission, that violate accords on torture and are notable for the deaths of men and the rape and mistreatment of women and children.

But “concerned” is still too much for the Liberal Party. Immediately Malcolm Turnbull was stressing that this concern would not metastasise into decency.

“There will be no resettlement of the people on Manus and Nauru in Australia. They will never come to Australia,” he said. “Now, I know that’s tough, we do have a tough border protection policy, you could say it’s a harsh policy, but it has worked.”

Any changes to policy, he stressed, would involve cabinet and be conducted in a “considered way”. The camps where children attempt suicide were “not an ideal environment”. But there would be no “backward step”. Turnbull’s government was “doing everything we can to encourage them to return to where they came”.

Dutton was there behind him: “The PM has made it very clear that people who try to come to our country illegally by boat will never be settled here.”

It was not enough for Andrew Bolt, and those like him. “Malcolm Turnbull has made his first mistake in playing the uncomfortable role of a conservative,” he wrote, “giving the impression he will soften our border laws.”

And again: “Malcolm Turnbull on Sky News this morning sent a dangerous signal. He refused to rule out changes to our border policies, and thanked a journalist for caring about illegal immigrants on Manus Island and Nauru. Uh-oh.”

There is no margin for concern in the minds of conservatives. Not that Turnbull has shown much compassion in this area. He was happy to use the boats to his advantage as opposition leader.

But immigration and the environment are the two areas in which he will be most watched by those on his side of politics who wish he was on someone else’s.

It is why, in remaking his cabinet, he did not remake these portfolios. While Greg Hunt may yet develop, Dutton will not. He is without ideas or subtlety. As long as he remains he will be hopeless and so will be the few thousand souls trapped in offshore detention.

This is one of the shameful truths of politics that even a new leader with staggering public approval cannot fix.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 26, 2015 as "Dutton for punishment".

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