Paul Bongiorno
Peter Dutton’s racism to the bottom

Whatever way you cut it, Australian politics in the past week travelled further down the low road of ignorance, prejudice and bigotry. It’s the new fashion propelled by the extraordinary success in Britain and the United States of politicians who push these buttons.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, already a practitioner in the dark arts, quickly took his cue in an interview with Andrew Bolt on Sky News. Bolt suggested that former prime minister Malcolm Fraser got the Lebanese refugee program wrong in the late 1970s. Dutton agreed “mistakes were made”. When parliament resumed, Labor wanted to know what these mistakes were. The answer was profoundly jarring.

Dutton said the advice he had “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”. His defence was that he was simply being honest. He was either oblivious to the racist implications or deliberately seizing them. The minister told parliament, “I’m not interested in the politically correct nonsense the leader of the opposition might carry on with.” He wanted to make sure we settle people in this country who want to take the opportunity given to them.

Dutton ruled out that the issue was a failure of settlement policy because “we provide support services, education, housing, and the vast majority of people make an absolute go of that”. For those people who don’t, he went on, “we should own up to our mistakes, rectify the problems and ensure the great future of this country”.

So the mistake – according to the immigration minister – was to let in Muslim Lebanese. What else could it have been? Worse, their children and grandchildren are denied the status of Australians by birth. Shorten nailed this obscenity when he told parliament, “We in the Labor Party don’t start by calling them ‘second- and third-generation migrants’. We call them Australians.”

But it wasn’t only the Labor Party that was appalled. In the Coalition party room, the Sydney Liberal MP, Trent Zimmerman, a former New South Wales party president, warned that the commentary was “unhelpful”. He said it sent mixed messages from the party, which was doing its best to reach out to migrant communities, including Lebanese, Chinese and Indian Australians. He reminded his colleagues that in the nation’s biggest state, 40 per cent of people are from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Though he didn’t join the debate, Craig Laundy, who holds the ethnically diverse Western Sydney seat of Reid, is, according to one of his colleagues, “apoplectic” over Dutton’s provocative racism.

But Dutton was not without his supporters. Victorian uber-conservative Michael Sukkar, who is of Lebanese Catholic heritage, strongly backed the minister. Not surprising, given that enmity between the Maronite Catholics and the Muslim majority led to the bloody civil war in 1976 – the conflict that saw a quarter of a million fatalities and one million displaced people. These were the desperate refugees to whom Fraser opened Australian hearts and borders.

Fraser’s immigration minister, Ian Macphee, was scathing in his reaction to Dutton. In a statement released through the Refugee Council, he said the attack was “outrageous”. He said: “We have had a succession of inadequate immigration ministers in recent years but Dutton is setting the standards even lower. Yet Turnbull recently declared him to be ‘an outstanding immigration minister’. The Liberal Party has long ceased to be liberal.”

Macphee described Dutton, Pauline Hanson and Andrew Bolt as “ignorant, alarmist voices”. He said the Fraser government “honoured international law and morality. From the Howard government onwards these have been increasingly discarded.”

Dutton’s attack showed up Turnbull’s weakness in capitulating to the right of his party so abjectly from day one. It is made all the more excruciating by the July election leaving him with a majority of one, empowering and emboldening the hardliners. It was left to Bill Shorten to defend Malcolm Fraser’s legacy. He did it by quoting Turnbull’s own eulogy of his Liberal predecessor. “As the prime minister generously said at the time, he was so far ahead of his time: ‘When you look at what he did in respect of shaping the nature of Australia today, it is really quite remarkable.’ ”

The closest Turnbull came to repudiating Dutton was in his national security update to parliament. He said: “Terrorist groups seek to identify weakness and vulnerability and drive fear and division. Actions and behaviours that target particular sections in society merely play into their hands.” It is left to the listener to fit that particular hat on the head of the immigration minister with his denigration of Lebanese Muslims. Dutton’s attack sends the message that they are not welcome here and they don’t fit in – the very ingredients of alienation that feed Islamic radicalisation, especially of the young.

What should be remembered is that Dutton, who is fast becoming the leading conservative voice in the Liberal party, is a Queenslander. A clue to his approach could be the alarm at the spike in support for One Nation of which his fellow Queenslander, Attorney-General George Brandis, speaks. A hot microphone picked up his frank conversation with Victorian Liberal party powerbroker Michael Kroger this week. In what he thought were private remarks, Brandis revealed support for One Nation is already running at 16 per cent in the Sunshine State. He is convinced it will win seats at the next state poll.

In 1998, One Nation peaked at 22 per cent to capture 11 seats in the state parliament and deny the Nationals and Liberals government. Adding to the alarm is the Palaszczuk Labor government’s reinstatement of compulsory preferential voting. According to the sotto voce Brandis, this could lead to a split between the merged Liberal and National parties that form the LNP. The ABC’s election analyst Antony Green believes that had preferential voting existed at the last state election, Labor would have won a majority on Greens preferences.

What could stymie the Hanson party’s resurgence is the antics of her senate colleagues in Canberra. It is no surprise that the three men she brought with her into the senate are opinionated eccentrics consumed by xenophobia and conspiracy theories, but holding them together as a cohesive team is proving hard.

Hanson is furious her colleague from Western Australia, Rod Culleton, misled her when he signed an affidavit assuring her he was eligible to run for the senate. She supported his referral to the High Court. This has far from impressed him, and he has been giving her the cold shoulder. His office has been at war with her svengali and chief of staff, James Ashby. It descended into farce when she resorted to using an ABC news camera to appeal to him. “Rod, excuse me, I’m party leader. I expect you to come to my office and it’s about being a team player and that’s all I expect.”

He heeded the call and after an hour, détente was declared. But he insisted, “She’s certainly not the boss of my office.” Whatever happens with the High Court, Culleton is not only in strife with several creditors but he now has the Queensland attorney-general on his tail for appearing to pervert the course of justice in a threatening letter to a Cairns magistrate.

Peter Dutton seems convinced the best way to deal with these extremists is to match them. In that, he has allies in the Coalition National Party. A loss by the Nationals in the Orange byelection, until now one of their safest state seats in NSW, precipitated a panic meeting of the 22-member federal party room. A rampant One Nation particularly exercised some minds, even though it was the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, with Labor preferences, that inflicted the loss.

There was agreement that they needed to do more to distinguish themselves as a party of the bush. There were worries over the Turnbull government’s inability to set the agenda or address voters’ concerns. But talk of “bloodletting” upset one of the participants, Senator John “Wacka” Williams. He’s angry that someone inside leaked this version of the meeting to the Herald Sun. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “National party room meetings are always cordial.”

An upshot of the confab was a revolt by the party against the government decision to leave an import ban on the Adler rapid-fire shotgun. Not one Nationals senator voted to continue the ban. Williams and his Victorian colleague Bridget McKenzie crossed the floor to support a motion lifting it. In what is claimed as a coincidence, three Nationals cabinet ministers didn’t show up for the vote. Labor pounced. Shorten demanded to know what the prime minister had done to discipline cabinet ministers for not supporting a cabinet position. Turnbull brushed it off because there was no threat to the decision being overturned in the senate.

The Nationals are sure to be hoping shooters and farmers in the bush noticed, even if it provided an opportunity for Shorten to highlight government disunity. It certainly showed the Nationals, who have Turnbull on a tight rein over issues such as marriage equality, aren’t worried about unity if it doesn’t suit them.

And in a week when the government had two good wins in the senate over superannuation and one of its union-busting bills, it shows that the low road will always take top billing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 26, 2016 as "Racism to the bottom".

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