Image: Jono Searle/AAP
A few weeks ago Peter Dutton would have been contemplating, in the event of the Morrison government’s likely defeat, contesting the Liberal leadership against Josh Frydenberg and probably losing.
Instead, he has walked unopposed into the job at Monday’s Liberal meeting. A shattered parliamentary party has nowhere else to go.
The leadership is a prize Dutton has long coveted. But now it appears a poisoned chalice. The only qualification to that is the inherent uncertainty of politics.
Dutton’s dual task is herculean: reshaping his own image and uniting and rebuilding the party.
Dutton, 51, was the Morrison government’s hard man: pugnacious, uncompromising and unpopular with the public. A Roy Morgan poll in March found him running a very poor third as preferred Coalition leader, on 14%, compared with Josh Frydenberg on 46% and Scott Morrison on 28.5%.
His wife Kirilly the other day argued Dutton is a compassionate person but when faced with making high profile ministerial decisions about individuals in immigration cases, he frequently appeared unswayed by compassion. His provocative statements range widely. On broad issues of national security, he has been in the vanguard of the hawks, convinced an aggressive China is on a quick march.
Malcolm Turnbull, writing in his autobiography, A Bigger Picture, on why, when he lost the leadership numbers, he preferred Scott Morrison over Dutton, said: “Dutton, were he to become prime minister, would run off to the right with a divisive, dog-whistling, anti-immigration agenda, written and directed by Sky News and 2GB”.
But Dutton is complicated. Almost all who know him testify there are two Peter Duttons: the public sword carrier with the mask-like face and the non-public person, who is routinely described as charming, with a sense of humour, and politically more granular than you might think.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gave him an interesting character reference last week, when he said “I have a much better relationship with Peter Dutton than I had with Scott Morrison. Peter Dutton has never broken a confidence that I’ve had with him.”
Liberal moderate, senator Andrew Bragg says: “At least you know where you stand with him. He has a lot more organic support because he’s been honourable and transparent in his dealings over time.”
Warren Entsch, describing himself as a “long serving moderate” says Dutton is “not the person I see projected in the media. I’ve worked with him on difficult immigration issues – I found him to be compassionate – he supported what I required.
“All the actions he’s done with me suggest he’ll take the party to the centre”.
Entsch adds pointedly, “One of the things you can guarantee with Dutton [is that] he’s not going to bring religion into it”.
Ahead of Monday, Dutton made a fresh effort to convince people there’s more to him than they see.
He declared he’d had “tough jobs” – as a policeman, and in portfolios like home affairs – and “most people have only seen that side of me”.
“I hope now, in moving from such tough portfolios, the Australian public can see the rest of my character. The side my family, friends and colleagues see,” he said. The script was familiar. He’d made a similar pitch when trying to wrest the prime ministership from Malcolm Turnbull in 2018.
Dutton entered parliament in 2001 and had a couple of ministries in the Howard government, including assistant treasurer.
At the start of the Rudd government he boycotted the apology to the stolen generations, claiming it delivered no tangible benefits. Later he said he regretted his action. “I didn’t appreciate the symbolism of it, and the importance to Indigenous people,” he told a journalist in 2017.
He became health minister in the Abbott government, and after the 2014 budget had carriage of the planned Medicare co-payment, which hadn’t been his idea and eventually was abandoned when there was no hope of getting it through the Senate.
A former official recalls of him, “He wasn’t terrible. He didn’t have an unnuanced view. He wasn’t completely monochrome. He wasn’t all black.” A political colleague of the period says he was a “competent” health minister but “much more suited to border protection than health”.
Late in 2014 he was moved to immigration, where he was known for harsh decisions and uncompromising statements. And a 2015 joke, caught on an open mic, about climate change and the Pacific. “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door,” he quipped to then PM Tony Abbott and fellow minister Morrison. It dogs him still.
The ambitious Dutton lobbied for the creation of a super national security portfolio and PM Turnbull eventually accommodated him. In his new home affairs job Dutton continued to give no quarter.
But he wanted more, and quickly. He trailed his coat for a challenge to Turnbull, which came to a head in August 2018. But he was outdone in the manoeuvring and lost to Morrison.
In 2021, issues surrounding two ministers, Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds led to a reshuffle that put Dutton into defence. He was like a pig in the proverbial – a highly activist minister in a portfolio he relished.
He countermanded the chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell in relation to some recommendations from the Brereton inquiry into alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. The AUKUS agreement put him at the centre of the early plans for the nuclear-powered submarines, and he had ambitions for a wide overhaul of defence capability.
The portfolio also gave Dutton a platform to talk up the threat from China.
Dutton reached out to experts, including to Peter Jennings, then head of the government-supported defence think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“He was different from how people talk about him,” Jennings says. “He was happy to listen, very engaged, self-deprecating, clearly in control of his ego.”
Neil James, of the Australia Defence Association, says as defence minister Dutton was “generally respected by the military and by the defence community more generally, particularly compared to some of his predecessors over the last decade”.
A source who has worked with him in the national security area describes him as pragmatic, “a mainstream right winger, but not a Trumpian version. He thought the radicalism of the Republican party was lunacy.”
His pragmatism came out on marriage equality. Although he opposed same-sex marriage, he saw its legalisation as inevitable and pushed (with then finance minister Mathias Cormann) for a postal vote. When that passed he voted for the 2017 legislation.
In last week’s statement announcing he would stand for leader, Dutton sent up a centrist flag within the party. “We aren’t the Moderate Party. We aren’t the Conservative Party. […] We are the Liberal Party,” he said.
“We believe in families – whatever their composition. Small and micro businesses. For aspirational hard working ‘forgotten people’ across the cities, suburbs, regions and in the bush.”
This, of course, is motherhood. In the months ahead there will be many questions. One of the big ones will be: to what extent should the Liberals give up on the “teal” urban seats, the seats of the Menzian party, lost at this election? Those within the party dismissive of these seats see its future in the outer suburbs and the regions.
The post election Liberal Party might be likened to a ship with gaping holes forward (the progressive wing which has leaked to the teals) and aft (the conservative base, which has eroded to small parties on the right and non-teal independents).
Some Liberals argue Dutton will be well placed to repair the latter. “We can’t chase the teal [seats] till we do something about the base,” says one.
Bragg hopes the Dutton era might be like “Nixon and China” but, more realistically, says “the concern is how it is going to work in Melbourne and Sydney”.
Whatever efforts he makes to broaden his own image, or project a different one, it is difficult to see Dutton as the person to win back teal areas (and that’s apart from independents being inherently hard to dislodge).
Dutton will begin his new job sounding upbeat. But history tells us, and him, the first leader of the opposition after a party loses office is unlikely to be the one who takes it back into power.
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Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.