Hateful numbers

The front page of The Australian is not a place numbers end up by accident. Peter Dutton knows that. So does the prime minister.

The headline on the paper this Tuesday would have been a source of satisfaction for one of them: “Peter Dutton’s secret plan to cut back on migrants.”

The story detailed a conversation Dutton had with cabinet colleagues, in which he proposed cutting the annual permanent migration intake by 20,000. By no small coincidence, it noted that the suggestion was supported by Barnaby Joyce and opposed by Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison. The report said Dutton’s argument was “based on public concern at the rate of immigration”.

Immediately, Turnbull denied it. “The story on the front page of The Australian today about migration and the cabinet is completely untrue,” he said. “It’s false. It’s completely untrue.”

At this point, it was still ordinary Coalition race baiting: a story appears to agitate racist sentiment, Malcolm Turnbull denies it, and the work is already done.

But this story is different. This is a story about Peter Dutton’s willingness to use race to advance his leadership ambitions. Just as Abbott made his first challenge to Turnbull’s leadership on climate change – letting it be known he thought the science was “absolute crap” – Dutton is making a pitch based on his willingness to exploit this country’s racism.

The choice is between a man who calls multiculturalism Australia’s greatest success and another who calls refugees paedophiles.

The story was now a chance to call the prime minister a liar and offer Dutton’s leadership as an alternative reality, a terrible one. “Of course I support the comments of the Prime Minister,” Dutton said. “I’ll add to that though, because as you would expect, and as every immigration minister would have, I have canvassed different options around the composition of the program.”

And again: “There is no point of difference between the Prime Minister and I … There is obviously a debate about congestion and about housing affordability. The government is alive to all of those concerns. About the geographic placement of people, trying to attract people out to the regions. They are all issues we consider. I have had hundreds of conversations with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer about taxation and about welfare, about immigration, all of that, as you would expect us to.”

Dutton is as subtle as a Southern Cross tattoo. He has said this week that he wants to be prime minister. Dutton and Tony Abbott have made reducing migration a cornerstone of their conservative manifesto. Dutton said in February that it must happen. Turnbull refuses it for economic reasons.

But Dutton sees it as more than numbers. It is a hateful dichotomy between migrants who are “going to be a burden” and those who “make a good contribution”. His is a world of halves: civilised white farmers against Rohingya who face refoulement.

He is not above inventing race panics to advance his career. He did more than anyone in the country to confect a gang crisis in Melbourne. He alone makes decisions about the fate of individual refugees. He is happy to politicise the court system, to starve out refugees in the community, to drag people from their houses and split up families, to count the dead and wounded in the camps he runs off our shores.

Dutton’s pitch is this: There are a number of One Nation voters in Queensland and Western Australia who would vote Liberal except they are racists. Well, I’m just as racist as One Nation, just as willing to exploit fears and punish minorities. Malcolm Turnbull isn’t. He won’t even consider cutting the migrant intake.

This is the future of the Liberal Party: split once on climate change, preparing to be split again on race. Peter Dutton is the ugly face of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "Hateful numbers".

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