Say what you will about Peter Dutton, he is a truly terrible person. He is a man best known for his awfulness. When newspapers speak to his friends, most of them ask to be anonymous. The best they can say is he’s funny.
This week Dutton’s opposition attempted to restart a panic on boats. For all the talk of change, he springs back like a pig bristle. On Monday, the Albanese government finally granted stability to 19,000 refugees living on temporary visas. Most had been in this dreadful precarity for more than a decade. Almost immediately, the opposition was warning of another wave of boats.
“Now they have to send in the defence forces to try and protect our borders because the policy that they’ve implemented has put it at risk,” shadow Home Affairs minister Karen Andrews said. “Now people smugglers will look at every opportunity to restart their trade.”
Andrews was talking about the deployment of naval vessels to the country’s north, weeks before the policy change. On Thursday, The Australian led with the story: “SOS to navy: get ready for boats surge”.
It is as if the Liberal Party can never move past the thrill of the 2001 election, the one that put Dutton in office, the one that showed John Howard he could swing an entire campaign on a single lie.
For the Liberal Party, turnback is no longer just about boats. It’s about clocks and progress. They are forever reprosecuting that one surprise victory. It’s like a Civil War re-enactment, with Peter Dutton dressed up as himself and various frontbenchers playing dead in the grass.
The Murdoch press are happy to go along with it. They remember the Howard years fondly. It was a quaint time, when they had influence. Almost all the arguments of the era have been settled and almost all of them lost. Refusing to concede, they are now running them again from the top: on refugees, Indigenous sovereignty, climate change, the persecuted men of the church. Familiarity breeds contempt except where the contempt is what’s familiar.
The cruellest part of John Howard’s border regime was temporary protection visas. Research shows that the psychological damage done by these instruments of uncertainty was worse than the impacts of detention. They forced people to live in a no space. They were neither resident nor detainee. They could depend on nothing.
The granting of permanent visas to these people is cause for celebration. In refugee networks there have been tears of relief this week. For the first time, mothers and fathers can be certain where their children will grow up.
It is not surprising Dutton sees this as an opportunity. He knows there is a certain form of happiness that can be turned against the people feeling it. This is the happiness of the other, of people not like him. He knows that to the worst of Australia this happiness feels like a threat.
This is the real lesson of the 2001 election campaign: for fear to work, there has to be something at stake for both sides. Howard set up a struggle between one man’s comfort and another man’s freedom. There is a wretched imbalance in this struggle, which is why comfort always wins.
Dutton continues to claim he has learnt the lessons of the 2022 election. Until he can forget the lessons of the 2001 election, however, he will continue dragging the country backwards to its worst, most appalling impulses, to a fear of the vulnerable and a perverse desire to punish them for their vulnerability.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "On Dutton".
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