There was grim calculation to Peter Dutton’s statement. He had sought a brief for his bigotry and had one prepared. “The advice I have,” he told the parliament, “is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second- and third-generation Lebanese Muslim background.”
The comment followed his earlier criticism of Malcolm Fraser’s immigration policy – the repudiation of the humanity of, perhaps, his party’s last decent leader. “The reality,” he said, “is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s and we’re seeing that today.”
The undertow to this was payback for Fraser’s criticism of the Liberal Party over its treatment of refugees, culminating in his resignation from the party prior to his death last year. The Coalition will forever feel betrayed by a man who held to his values as his party drifted away from him.
Dutton calls this an “honest discussion”. He says, “I have been factual in what I said and I want to make sure that we have the best possible country.”
Turnbull refused to confront his immigration minister. Not content with lying once, he lied three times. He called Dutton a “thoughtful, committed and compassionate immigration minister”.
Andrew Laming said Dutton was speaking only the “prima facie truth” of immigration. This is a nonsense. Dutton was using the conduct of 22 people in an attempt to demonise an entire people. He was doing so cynically and with the sharpest cruelty.
Dutton is desperate for this to become a culture war. He hopes that his racism will wedge Labor. “Bill Shorten can carry on being part of the tricky elite in this country,” he said. “He can talk double-code to people, he can be tricky in his language. I’m not going to be intimidated by it.”
For Dutton, this is a game. But the impact of this rhetoric is real. Following his comments, Anne Aly, the first Muslim woman elected to the parliament, began receiving racist emails.
“Peter Dutton was right,” read one, with the subject line “Leb thugs”. “Pack your bags and piss off back to where you came from and take all of your terrorist faith with you.”
On Aly’s Facebook page, another threat: “I would love to kill you and poison your family.”
And another: “Your a worthless cancer on this country you and your Koran can fuck off the sooner your dead the better this place will be. ALL MUSLIMS WILL DIE.”
This is Dutton’s Australia. It is an Australia where his influence depends on disharmony, where his cling to power requires the punishment of an innocent people.
Dutton should have been sacked long ago. He should have been sacked for incompetence, for his inability to resolve the crisis on Manus and Nauru. He should have been sacked for lying about the intentions of a woman who was raped on Nauru, who was spirited from a hospital bed as she waited for an abortion required by that rape.
He should have been sacked for his fallacious claim that refugee advocates are responsible for the self-harm to which indefinite detention drives asylum seekers, or for his misleading commentary regarding spying on a Greens senator. He should have been sacked 1600 times over, once for each of the souls doomed in offshore detention. But he was not.
Dutton is Turnbull’s disgrace. He holds his portfolio as a signal to the right of the party that the prime minister has no intention of erring compassionately on refugees. Each outrage is a test of the prime minister’s gormlessness. With each refusal to act decently, with each refusal to quiet Dutton’s obscenities, he shows more and more his inability to lead.
Dutton should be sacked. If Turnbull cannot do this, he should reflect on what his own lust for power is doing to the country he once dreamt of leading.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "Eject Dutton". Subscribe here.