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Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton (image via commons.wikimedia.org).

A couple of weeks after declaring that The Guardian, along with other “crazy lefties”, was "completely dead to me," Peter Dutton was granted an exclusive interview resulting in not one but two articles in Saturday’s (7 April) edition of that publication.

Home Affairs Minister Dutton is described by Ben Smee in 'Peter Dutton: "Some leaders fall into the trap of abandoning principles"', as possessing 'unflinching conviction that looks like indifference', as well as 'steadfastness' and an 'unshakeable world view'. He is also, according to Independent Member for Indi Cathy McGowan, “a man of great conviction”.

I don’t doubt that Dutton has these qualities, as do all despots and tyrants. Indeed, without those capacities, it would be impossible to consistently inflict severe damage on others in the blind pursuit of ideology and Dutton is, without any shadow of a doubt, an ideologue.

As a society, we’re encultured to read conviction, steadfastness and implacability, firstly as positive attributes — which indeed they can be. Rarely is it acknowledged that like every other human capacity, they are only as good as their expression.

Perseverance against all odds, in the pursuit of goals where the harming of others isn't a requisite, is usually regarded as positive. Unflinching conviction, that justifies the harming of others as a necessary means to a dubious end, perhaps not so much. Dutton’s policy of persecuting refugees on land in an effort to prevent asylum seekers drowning at sea is a chilling example of an unflinching means-to-an-end conviction at its worst.

This Guardian article, as well as the second piece'Peter Dutton says "like-minded" countries should rethink UN refugee convention', where Dutton offers advice to other nations on immigration policy, are unlike anything else published so far in the media about Dutton.

As a contrast, take this Washington Post piece casting him as Australia's Trump, or this Guardian piece from March 2017 describing the asylum seeker regime over which Dutton presides, as brutal and obscene.

These latest Guardian articles are free of opinion and condemnatory language. There’s none of the (invariably warranted) indignation and outrage we’ve come to expect. Instead, there is a hint of appeasement — the offer of an uncritical platform. It’s as if Dutton’s fury-fuelled “dead to me” comments thoroughly unnerved the editors. Like the man or hate him, there’s no doubt about his power and his willingness to wield it.

While not yet prime minister, it’s arguable that he has as much, if not more, power than the current incumbent and Turnbull has shown absolutely no interest in curbing any of Dutton’s excesses. It might be difficult for The Guardian to remain sanguine in the face of Dutton’s profound contempt and refusal to engage. Offering him the opportunity to tell it in his own words is perhaps a way back in from the cold.

The articles legitimise Dutton, in a way he hasn’t been legitimised before. They allow him to frame himself as a serious and thoughtful man, rather than the brutal, power-hungry enforcer of harsh and unnecessary rules determined by blind ideology and lacking all humanity.

On the face of it, The Guardian’s description of him as steadfast and unshakeable is to his considerable benefit. His “indifference” to criticism, fed by his “unflinching conviction” that what he’s doing is right, can be construed as honourable. It’s important to recognise that this is incidental propaganda. Dutton is not honourable, but note how very easily he can be portrayed as honourable, even by those from whom one expects disapproval. The articles appear unbiased, sticking to the reporting of facts and the opinions of others — both good and bad to provide balance. Dutton would find it difficult to complain or object to their tone.

The true horror of Dutton’s actions against refugees and asylum seekers are sanitised in this narrative. If you didn’t know the stories, you’d almost believe his version:

In any of these jobs where there are tough decisions, it does take a personal toll, there’s no question about that. But I think that’s balanced by the good you know that you’re doing in other areas of the portfolio. In some cases, you’re reading through horrific circumstances around a particular case and there’s no easy option. In many circumstances you’re faced with two options, if you have the luxury of two options, and neither is palatable but a decision has to be made. But I’d be disingenuous to say there’s not a personal toll in these sorts of jobs.

I practise in an area where there’s raw emotion and there’s a lot of understandable human sympathy … and I believe that’s a perfectly legitimate response for people to have, particularly where children are involved.

This sounds reasonable. It sounds like the account of a decent and responsible bloke who has to make hard choices under difficult circumstances. However, Dutton’s account of his daily work masks the immorality of a man who has made and continues to make entirely incomprehensible, malignant and malicious decisions that destroy individuals and families — and have incontestably caused deaths.

Dutton’s characteristics as described in The Guardian are useful reminders that the best in us is a mere turn away from the worst in us, or as Bob Dylan once put it,

“I asked her for salvation, she gave me a lethal dose.

Be careful what you wish for. A nation seeking reassurance, protection and steadfast strength from its leaders would do well to be careful about what it wishes. All too often those paternal qualities are perverted by access to unfettered power and before we know it, we’re deep in the process of morphing into a fascist state in which our childish desire to be kept safe is gratified at the cost of our freedom. It may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that this is where Australia sits today. It may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that Peter Dutton is our major symbol of unfettered power and as such, perfectly positioned to lead the country confidently down the fascist path. A national desire for certainty necessarily ends in dictatorship — the desire is infantile and can only be satisfied by authoritarianism.

Unlike Turnbull, who is hard-pressed to point to any achievements during his tenure as Prime Minister, Dutton (in his terms) has achieved much. He says has “stopped the boats”  — and yes, you may well disagree with this assertion but the majority of voters apparently do not, which is sadly what matters at the moment far more than any truth or accuracy. He has managed to manipulate himself into a position of extraordinary power, gaining, through the new Home Affairs “super ministry” sole authority over the state’s key institutions: national security, law enforcement, emergency management, border control, immigration, refugees, citizenship and multicultural affairs. This includes responsibility for the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

What is interesting is that The Guardian pieces have appeared at the end of a week during which social media speculation that Dutton is positioning himself to oust his leader, Malcolm Turnbull, has been rabid, predicting a spill this week as the Prime Minister was predicted to lose his 30th straight Newspoll — and did. Dutton faces a fight for his seat in the next election: if he’s going to make a tilt at the top job, it could well be now or never. And what better way to renew interest in an electorate that is currently not overly enamoured with its sitting member. As prime minister, he has the best chance, perhaps even the only chance, of holding onto his seat.

Dutton’s interview with The Guardian is an opportunity for him to present himself as a strong leader who will not be swayed by opposition and dislike. His darkness is masked by reason and the lauding of qualities long considered admirable, regardless of the manner in which they are enacted. His record is, on the face of it, one of spectacular personal achievement in a Government that has as its hallmark a series of spectacular failures.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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