The poverty of fear

The problem with this country is that Peter Dutton could credibly become its prime minister. If the myth of American politics is that anyone can be president, the sad truth of Australia is that no one is truly unelectable.

The degradation of our politics, the emptying out of talent and credibility, has left us with a poverty of choice. It is a contest between impotence and incompetence. The decision is made by the country’s worst impulses, which suits Dutton fine.

Above anything else, Australia is a fearful nation. Its character is not easygoing, as it wishes so much to believe – it is brutal and afraid. The country was colonised in a spirit of violent worry. It was federated out of anxiety. Its politics is built on panic.

The old, unreasonable terrors are back, as if they never went: of refugees, of First Nations people, of anyone not like you. These fears have been here long enough that they are seen not as weakness but as strength.

In the middle of the year, in June, Steve Price wrote a column for the Murdoch tabloids announcing that Peter Dutton was ready to be prime minister. Price’s judgement includes drink driving on a Vespa while his wife rode pillion, but he understands smallness and cruelty as well as anyone.

“Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has this week arrived as an alternative Prime Minister. He’s electable and Prime Minister Albanese should be very worried,” Price wrote.

“Dutton has changed both his demeanour and appearance and is calmly working his way towards the big job … The times suit him and his style of politics. We all know bad news sells and Australia has plenty of that right now.”

It took only six months for opinion polls to catch up, for Dutton to scratch and scratch until the fear that is always so close started to show through. A man who is otherwise terrifying appeals to the terrified. He speaks to a country that looks at the world from behind half-drawn blinds.

The Voice was made for this sort of politics. It asked the country to think kindly of the people it fears and judges. The prejudice was well known to Dutton and he spoke it fluently. For him, it could not have been more perfect.

A month later, when the High Court finally ended Australia’s illegal system of indefinite detention, Dutton was ready with his most ghoulish clichés. A country that has only once been invaded and only by the people now in power was again terrified of foreign incursion.

To Dutton, these refugees were paedophiles and hardened criminals. He has only ever been a cop and enough of the country is happy with that. His promise is to act on whatever fear you might already have, brutally and without thought.

The word for Dutton now is competitive. It is a description of comparison and reflects as poorly on him as it does on the government he opposes. The thought that he could be prime minister is truly appalling. It is a reminder of just how stubborn prejudice is in this country, how selfish it can be, how it grows like the roots of a foreign tree and will resprout over and over until it is grubbed out from the earth.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "The poverty of fear".

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