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As Peter Dutton addresses his decision to boycott the apology, it can be revealed  he shut down reconciliation initiatives while serving as Defence minister. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Dutton blocked Indigenous names at bases

The new Liberal Party leader, Peter Dutton, and his deputy, Sussan Ley, after a party room meeting at Parliament House, Canberra, on Monday.
The new Liberal Party leader, Peter Dutton, and his deputy, Sussan Ley, after a party room meeting at Parliament House, Canberra, on Monday.
Credit: AAP / Lukas Coch

After becoming Defence minister last year, Peter Dutton intervened to cancel an Australian Defence Force plan to give Australian military bases dual English and Indigenous names.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed that Dutton stepped in to reverse a then two-year-old plan to introduce dual naming of Australia’s main military bases. The change would have added local Indigenous-language names to the current English ones, as part of a policy working towards reconciliation.

About the same time, Dutton instructed Defence to stop pursuing “a woke agenda”. News reports last year revealed he was upset the department had held morning teas at which staff wore rainbow-coloured clothing to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Interphobia and Transphobia.

Dutton, who is now leader of the Liberal Party, sought to soften his past stance on Indigenous issues this week. He declared he had been wrong to walk out on then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 national parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations and said he understands symbolism has a role in reconciliation.

But when The Saturday Paper contacted his spokesperson seeking comment on his decision regarding Indigenous names, it received no response.

The dual-naming cancellation emerges as the Liberals and Nationals examine what caused them to lose office at the May 21 election, with seats falling to both Labor and a wave of teal independents.

Having both elected new leadership teams this week, the Coalition parties face pressure over whether they should move right or forge a middle course that better acknowledges the issues on which independents campaigned strongly.

Dutton’s comments on Indigenous affairs highlight the challenge the Liberals face in seeking to reposition under a leader strongly identified with some of the most contentious policy and rhetorical positions of the Coalition’s time in office.

The ADF and Department of Defence adopted the dual-naming policy in 2019 as part of Defence’s latest three-year reconciliation action plan. The Indigenous names were to reflect the traditional ownership of the Country where each base is located.

Other measures in the plan included permanently acknowledging traditional custodians at Australia’s military establishments.

That process was already under way when Dutton became minister and continues, with plaques installed at 206 Defence sites to date and more to come.

“The Department of Defence respectfully acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of this land – both past and present,” the plaques say.

“Defence also acknowledges the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have contributed to the defence of Australia in times of peace and war.”

The plaques bear images of the Australian, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islander flags.

The 2019 reconciliation action plan committed Defence to displaying plaques “in 100 per cent of Defence establishments”.

It also said: “Defence will engage with Traditional Custodians to commission dual names, in Traditional language, for all major Defence bases and establishments.”

Both measures were due to be completed by December 2022, but Dutton cancelled the dual-naming. The Saturday Paper understands no formal explanation was given.

In a statement on Thursday, Defence said it “acknowledges the important role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have long played, and continue to play, in the defence of Australia”.

It said progress towards its reconciliation action plan would be reviewed before December. “Defence’s conventions for the naming of major bases and establishments reflect the rich history and tradition of the Australian Defence Force,” the statement said. “Traditional Owners are an important stakeholder group in suggesting names used by Defence for organisational projects and meeting places.”

This week, Dutton said he was willing to hear the new Labor government’s proposals on implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and enshrining an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the constitution.

Although he conceded he was wrong to have walked out on the national apology 14 years ago, he went on to defend the move, insisting the conditions he thought necessary to justify an apology still had not been met.

“I made a mistake in relation to the apology and largely that was because of my own background and experience,” Dutton said in his first news conference as leader on Tuesday, citing family violence in Indigenous communities and his experience as a police officer for a decade in Queensland. “I believed that the apology should be given when the problems were resolved, and the problems are not resolved.”

Dutton said successive governments had “been on a unity ticket” in working to improve conditions in local communities and for Indigenous advancement in education, health, mortality and “all the rest of it”.

“But we have all failed. And so yes, I understand the symbolism and I made that mistake.”

He said he wanted to work with the government to deliver “practical solutions” to problems in Indigenous communities.

“You know, going to a meeting here and giving 10 acknowledgments to country – that’s fine, and I don’t say that in a disparaging way. I want to know how it is we’re going to support those kids.”

Dutton’s comments came as he asked Australians to take a more holistic look at him as leader and see beyond decisions he made as minister for Home Affairs and then Defence. He said it was “hard to talk about all of that” and also show “a softer side” but he also emphasised that “strength of character and a relentless resolve” were leadership qualities.

Dutton flagged one policy shift immediately, saying he had always supported a robust national integrity commission and wanted to speak to independent Helen Haines about her proposed model. Under Scott Morrison, the Coalition strongly opposed Haines’s model, which Labor supports and which involves holding public hearings.

With his new deputy, former Environment minister Sussan Ley, Dutton pledged to heed the lessons of the election. Ley is leading a review to identify them.

“We’ll see what that comes back with, we’ll respond appropriately to it,” he said. “But under my leadership the Liberal Party is … not the conservative party, not the moderate party, we are Liberals. We are a broad church. We will have policies that appeal to Australians across the board.”

He said those policies would focus on Australians who “believe, as I do, that we need to keep our country safe and keep the economy strong so that we can help families and help small businesses and help them grow”.

Dutton pointedly criticised big business, suggesting it had abandoned the Coalition in favour of Labor and other parties. He rebuked business leaders for only speaking up on social and environmental issues and not leading debate on important economic reform.

“Nobody’s advocating for changes around industrial relations or wages policy, or in relation to economic policy or taxation policy more generally,” he said. “And I think we’re a poorer country for that.”

Dutton’s opening statement at Tuesday’s news conference emphasised Australia was “the envy of the world” for both its migrant story and its “rich and proud Indigenous heritage”.

His election followed a leadership ballot among the Nationals, which saw former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce defeated and David Littleproud – like Dutton, a Queenslander – elevated to the role of Nationals leader. First-term New South Wales senator Perin Davey became his deputy. Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie remains Nationals senate leader.

In a public statement, Barnaby Joyce said: “I suppose you think I am sad. Not really.” He said he had always planned to step down.

While Littleproud declared prime minister Anthony Albanese “a good bloke” with whom he wanted to find common ground, Dutton launched an immediate salvo.

Before the government’s full ministry had been sworn in, he declared it “a bad government”. He said, “My job as the opposition leader is to put policies forward between now and the next election and to hold a bad government to account.”

Dutton also implied voters had erred in electing Labor. “By the time of the next election in 2025, we will present a plan to the Australian people which will clean up Labor’s inevitable mess and lay out our own vision,” he said. “We won’t be Labor-lite. We’ll propose strong policies to make the lives of Australians better and to provide more security to them. Our policies will be squarely aimed at the forgotten Australians in the suburbs across regional Australia – the families and small businesses whose lot the Labor Party will have made more difficult.”

Sussan Ley said it was clear many women who had previously supported the Coalition voted against it this time. “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 heard you. We’re listening, we’re talking. And we are determined to earn back your trust.”

As the Coalition’s post-election reckoning begins, some Liberals are offering views on what went wrong and what needs to change.

Leading NSW moderate Senator Andrew Bragg emphasises fairness.

“The Liberal Party must be the party of enterprise and fairness and there’s been a perception that we haven’t been promoting fairness,” Bragg says. “Our focus must be on developing differentiated economic policy while junking the culture wars.”

Bragg says the Coalition’s economic policies lacked substance and it “indulged in a perception of unfairness” while in office. “I think there was a perception that we weren’t going to champion the rights of minorities, we weren’t going to champion an integrity commission.”

Bragg wrote to NSW Liberal Party members this week urging an overhaul of the preselection process that saw Scott Morrison and his political lieutenant Alex Hawke force delays in order to install handpicked candidates in a dozen seats.

“Obviously not having candidates in the field hurt our electoral prospects,” Bragg says of the delay. Only three of those candidates won. Some who were installed had no existing support base. “Our connectivity to the grassroots has been lacking, clearly, in some areas.”

Many Liberals say privately that Morrison’s image was a big part of the problem.

Queensland MP Warren Entsch says Morrison was popular in his Cairns-based electorate, but criticises him nonetheless in diagnosing a key problem with the campaign: Morrison’s handpicked candidate for the Sydney seat of Warringah, Katherine Deves.

Entsch, a former crocodile farmer and moderate MP who is an outspoken advocate against transgender discrimination, says there were elements of Deves’ commentary on transgender issues “that the former PM really should have stayed away from”. He suggests appearing to encourage and endorse her remarks “did damage” to the party.

“He should have said, ‘This is not appropriate language’, and just batted it away,” Entsch says. Deves’s language shows “a complete lack of understanding of the situation and it’s very, very hurtful,” he adds.

He also says there was too much focus on religious discrimination and on religion generally – something he says he has warned Peter Dutton against. “I think religion should be totally separate to governance,” Entsch says.

He also says the Coalition needs to be more engaged on climate action. “Let’s be constructive and positive – disagree where we need to disagree but don’t be obstructive on stuff … The secret here is not pandering to extremes on either side but going right down the middle.” He says he has confidence in Dutton and urged people to give him “a go”.

Dutton says he does not intend to adjust his approach but hopes people can gain a better understanding of who he is. “I’m not going to change but I want people to see the entire person that I am,” Dutton said. “And I want people to reserve and make their own judgements when they meet me.”

He has the next three years to reintroduce himself, with his past record standing as a reference in the meantime.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Exclusive: Dutton blocked Indigenous names at bases".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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