Politics Opinion

Dutton chooses seppuku over Uluru

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

Liberal Leader Peter Dutton has likely sealed his political fate by opposing the Voice referendum and maintaining the Coalition's tradition of fear and hate, writes Michael Galvin.

POLITICS IS A never-ending morality play, occasionally Shakespearean in the characters and dilemmas it throws up. Mere mortals they all are, but the fate of the body politic depends on the choices politicians make. Character matters.

And so it was just a few days after the history-making Aston by-election, when Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley, the leaders of the Federal Liberal parliamentary party, stood up to announce their party’s decision to oppose the Voice to Parliament in the coming referendum.

The decision itself was deeply disappointing but not a surprise; it had been coming for months. What was more gripping was the timing and mode of the announcement. Dutton and Ley disgraced themselves on a very public stage, and seemingly oblivious to how absurd and isolated they looked and sounded. Every sentence was reeking with a “we know best” paternalism that would not have been out of place a century ago. Often accompanied by a side serve of misleading and tendentious red herrings.

Witness Ley’s shrill attempt to begin with all the “Yes” things she was offering, or her account of meeting one family in Alice Springs. Oh, the empathy she felt! As if all First Australians lived like this and needed saving. Was her empathy real or confected? Who would know? Would she know herself?

Or witness the memory-challenged Dutton, describing a decade-long process involving thousands of Indigenous Australians from across the continent and reaching a climax in 2017 with the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart, as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s “Canberra” Voice. The disconnect boomed across the continent, from Arnhem Land to Cape York.

How and why they did it this way is worth reflecting on.

First, the lugubrious Dutton. Just three days after becoming the worst loser in a century in Aston, he takes another gigantic step towards oblivion. Why? If I were to speculate, I would try and put myself in his shoes. A by-election has just taken place where he has lost badly and which confirms much larger trends flowing against his political worldview. Nearly all commentators agree that the Liberal Party has become too reactionary, too blokish, too out of touch with any voter under 40. To recover, anyone on planet Earth can see that they must move back to the centre.

However, there is a noisy, nasty lump of Kryptonite out there that believes the Liberal Party’s problems stem from not being reactionary enough. That its promise of salvation is to shift even further to the Right. Sky After Dark is obsessed with this mantra. Peta Credlin went so far on the night of the Aston by-election to declare that the recent 2022 Victorian Election was good for the Liberal Party.

(No matter that Victorian Premier Dan Andrews was returned with an increased majority; Credlin latched onto the fact that Labor was taken to preferences in some of its own seats. Delusional thinking turns every little detail into the bigger picture they want to see.)

Nothing suggests that Dutton is psychologically capable of tolerating ambiguity. Quite the contrary. He is the epitome of black-and-white thinking, with no grey areas. Being caught in the middle of the dilemma just described was too much stress for him to bear. He needed to choose, to make a call. He needed the release. And of course, the least painful psychological position for him to take was to side with the Abbotts and Credlins of this world, the folks who crawl around in his own comfort zone.

At least he won’t be pilloried by even nastier versions of himself, as he would have been if he had supported the “Yes” case. Yes, character is everything, even if its absence was more notable in Dutton’s case.

Watching Dutton explain his position, T S Eliot’s famous line – ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ – comes to mind. Dutton’s basic motivation was plain for all to see. Fear, pure and simple. Fear of what Black people might do with any power the referendum might give them. Fear that First Australians might want things that he did not want. Indigenous people had to be kept in their subservient place. Anything further was a bridge too far. Who knows what else they might demand, after two centuries of callous dispossession?

Whites fearing Blacks is a trope as old as colonisation itself. Dutton is onside with millions of gun-toting White Americans who feel exactly the same way. Fear of the present drives him; fear of the future terrifies him. Who can forget his outbursts regarding the so-called “African gangs” terrorising the good people of Melbourne? What he sees when it comes to acknowledging any rights for First Nations people in the Constitution is a threat and fear of consequences. He said so in as many words when he tried to justify his “No” stance.

Political students no doubt remember former PM Julia Gillard’s ill-fated decision a decade ago to announce an election date nearly a year before it was to be held. In so doing, she forfeited one of the main advantages of being PM — the ability to surprise the opposition and maximise her own chances by keeping them guessing. All she achieved was to give Tony Abbott a predictable timetable for one of the most destructive but successful campaigns in living memory. She made Abbott’s job so much easier.

Dutton has made the Gillard mistake. He has made certain that he will not be Opposition Leader by Christmas. He has now tied his fate to a specific event that will occur before the end of the year. It is impossible to see him emerging from this referendum with any enhanced dignity or political gravitas.

Too many interest groups including members of his own party will be campaigning against him on the Voice. His days are therefore numbered and potential challengers in his party room would obviously already know this. I expect that between now and his final seppuku, his political life will be death by a thousand cuts.

After his discreditable and disingenuous performance last week, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving person.

Michael Galvin is an adjunct fellow at Victoria University and a former media and communications academic at the University of South Australia.

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