Politics Analysis

Dutton's self-styled 'thug' persona is hardly a badge of honour

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @markdavidcartoons)

Peter Dutton's attempts to fulfil what Malcolm Turnbull coined as his "thug" character have rendered him more of a dictatorial despot than a bold leader, Paul Begley writes.

WHEN FORMER PRIME MINISTER Malcolm Turnbull was asked during the making of Nemesis to come up with a single word that sums up the character of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, he thought for a bit and spat out the word "thug".

Turnbull may have mused at the time that the word might stick and do Dutton some damage — and it has resonated negatively in some quarters, especially on X (formerly known as Twitter), where it’s been trending with hashtag terms such as #spudthug.

What Turnbull may not have foreseen is Dutton wearing the term with pride as a badge of honour.

It may seem counterintuitive, but if the present Leader of the Opposition has an Australian political hero, there’s a reasonable chance it’s Paul Keating.

Dutton would love to stride the national stage using the panache that Keating so effortlessly employed. Think of summing up the Senate as “unrepresentative swill”, calling former Liberal Minister Wilson Tuckey a “dog returning to his vomit”, defining former Treasurer Peter Costello as “all tip and no iceberg” and telling former Opposition Leader John Hewson to his face "I wanna do you slowly”.

He could casually dismiss the “old fogies and young fogies” of the Liberal Party one minute and observe the next that when they “see Bronwyn Bishop and Tony Abbott joining their ranks, their hearts must sink”. And on reflection – which Keating has the capacity to do – he has admitted getting “tired of combat” but gleefully insists “I can still throw a punch”.

When it came to combative eloquence, Keating likely would have owned up to an inclination to search for the thuggish phrase.

Dutton lacks the intellectual grunt and the idiomatic firepower that Keating brought to Parliament, but the intent within him to bring the style of a mobster to politics is readily apparent. He seems to want recognition for it and to be feared accordingly, as he was once Turnbull gave him the super-ministry of Home Affairs after amassing large parts of Attorney-General's Department powers, such as oversight of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), as well as border protection and cyber security.

With Dutton, refugees needed to be fearful about "trying it on and woke Labor Party officials needed to be wary about being a “soft touch”. Expressions such as these intentionally project a style of casual ruthlessness, typical of Dutton and reminiscent of Keating.

That said, there are big differences between the two: Keating throws punches at his equals, including ministers in his own Government who had no appetite for taking a path that led to Mabo. By contrast, Dutton throws punches at the weak and defenceless.

He has a long history of demonising refugees who come to our country traumatised by bloodshed and conflict – some arriving alone having lost entire families – and he appears to take personal pleasure in re-traumatising them in Australia, using systematic indefinite detention as a tool of torture.

On undeserving Australian citizens, Dutton dismissed NSW flood victims' calls for use of the $4.7 billion emergency assistance fund he oversaw in 2022 by pointedly opening a #GoFundMe page because he refused to be seen as a soft touch by holding out a hand to the citizens of Lismore and surrounding areas who, he believes, should have taken out insurance policies with greater flood foresight.

It was not unlike his 2015 indifference to Pacific Islanders’ existential threat from climate change which found expression in his hot mic joke about an inability to be punctual when water is “lapping at your door”.

In short, Dutton appears content to be seen publicly as an uncompromising and pitiless thug – not unlike his U.S. mentor Donald Trump – and he sees his base as a cohort that admires his anti-woke mobster style. His immediate call on Israel to respond to the Hamas atrocity of 7 October 2023 with a no-holds-barred collective punishment of the Palestinian people was a predictable Dutton response, comprehensively mindless to its wild disproportionality.

And then there are the lies.

While Donald Trump famously made 30,573 misleading claims or told outright lies during his four years in office – according to fact-check researchers at The Washington Post – he was not the first Republican to demonstrate a disdain for factual reporting. Presidential nominee Mitt Romney was prepared to have on his 2012 team, a senior operator whose default position was that factual accuracy was neither a high priority nor relevant to campaigning for high office.

While that default position has now been around for well over a decade in conservative politics, Trump has made it an art form, and his followers in like-minded political parties in other democracies have by now taken it as a surefire method to create confusion and doubt.

The mainstream media can largely be counted on to simply "report" what important people say without providing context or challenge.

Much of the information put out by Trump falls into the category of "ridiculous", such as the claim about his 2017 inauguration crowd and his enthusiastic assertion during a 4 July speech that the airfields had been closed during the 1775 War of Independence.

Absurd utterances from the highest office in the land serve little purpose other than to cheapen public discourse – to "flood the zone with shit", as Steve Bannon put it – and make people wonder if they can ever believe anything a person in high office says on any matter.


The essential takeaway from Bannon's idea is that your political opponent is not your real enemy. The enemy is the media if journalists fact-check and report your opponent in good faith. This makes it critical that the media give at least equal oxygen to elaborate lies as they do to information founded on a reliable evidentiary footing.

Media organisations call the practice "balance", which gives comfort to elected officials who see a benefit in creating confusion where a simple statement of fact would create clarity.

When media play the balance game, an audacious lie put out by a public figure will inevitably be given more media coverage and cause more audience interest than a statement of fact because the person in the street can be guaranteed to be more curious about a big lie than a tiresome recital of fact.

Into this zone enter the half-truth.

In the summer of 2018, Dutton (then-Australian Minister for Home Affairs) went on the offensive against the Andrews Government in Victoria because – according to assertions he made on Sydney’s 2GB radio station – African gangs of Sudanese youth were running amok in Melbourne invading citizens’ homes, stealing their cars and frightening them to such an extent that Melburnians were too scared to go out to dinner at night.

These assertions were given maximum media exposure during January and February, adding to the impression that the Andrews Government was soft on Black criminals because of the prevalence of political correctness and the appointment of civil libertarian magistrates.

Voters across the country were digesting the fanciful Dutton alarm and had no reason to disbelieve it because it was coming from a senior minister in the Australian Government. Victoria’s Police Commissioner acknowledged some incidents involving Sudanese youth but his reassurances about Melbourne’s low crime rate and his analytical data on the extent to which evidence of organisation is required to constitute a "gang", were given little coverage.

Dutton’s alarm-driven conflict-rhetoric delivered from Queensland won the day, instilling the idea that a tough cop was on the beat and that woke Victorian authorities were soft on crime, especially if the crime involved people of colour.

Dutton’s media campaign was founded on precious few facts but blown into a storm about a problem that existed but was well under control. As someone who lived in the St Kilda area in 2018, which was supposedly ground zero for African gangs, this journalist saw first-hand that alarm was overblown and was largely treated as such by Melburnians.

However, it served a purpose which was to enable a campaign in March 2018 for Christian white farmers in South Africa to be given fast-track immigration status because they were supposedly being persecuted in South Africa and should be allowed to escape from the Black-majority government there to a “civilised nation”.

Predictably, Dutton deeply offended the South African Government, which called on him to retract. Once again, he had cherry-picked the crime statistics in South Africa, which were high but negatively impacted Black youth more than White farmers.

He did the same when demonising the “murderers, rapists and paedophiles” released from detention following the High Court decision in 2023 that indefinite detention of refugees was illegal.

Perhaps the most absurd policy bubble has been the sudden enthusiasm for small modular nuclear reactors as a way to achieve Australia’s carbon emissions target, a target in which Dutton is at best a reluctant believer. The rhetoric around this issue began by putting out the idea that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) could be built quickly and easily and could eventually replace decommissioned coal plants instead of relying on wind and solar power, which is available now.

The case depends on believing that wind and solar are unreliable because the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine. Those propositions depend, in turn, on believing that battery technology is a thing of the future when, in fact, it is a thing of the present, as electric car drivers know full well. It also depends on believing that SMRs are being built all around the world when, actually, there are very few operating other than in China and Russia.

More to the point, the NuScale project in Utah – approved by the Department of Energy in the U.S. in 2020 – was given a USD$600 million (AU$907.7 million) development injection but was recently abandoned when the cost blowout of its SMR was found to be in the magnitude of USD$ billions and was combined with a revised projection of completion extending well into the late 2030s.

Westinghouse and Bill GatesTerraPower projects are on the table with striking similar difficulties around timeframes and cost.

In view of these developments, Dutton has come to realise that small modular reactors cannot be built tomorrow and cannot be set up next door to the local general store as initially intimated. They are prohibitively expensive and politically problematic in a democracy where they need a social licence, take decades to build and the waste they produce remains deadly for around 250,000 years.

Not surprisingly, the discussion is now moving away from SMRs to large-scale conventional reactors — with all their attendant problems either ignored or treated lightly.

The hogwash that Dutton has been feeding into the public space to bolster the flawed case for nuclear power seems designed less to persuade than to disorient.

For generations, the grim reality surrounding humanity’s doomsday persistence in playing with nuclear power has been punctuated by reminders centred around the Three-Mile Island accident (1979); the Chernobyl disaster (1986); the Fukushima tsunami (2011) and the issues around the largest power plant in Europe, Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which Russia keeps threatening to blow up (2024). A meltdown caused by such an event would spread nuclear contamination across the region and into Russia itself.

The relatively short history around nuclear power includes a dark comedy centred around its ever-present Western standard-bearer in Homer Simpson, who, with a care factor of zero, operates single-handedly a nuclear power plant in Springfield. Onto that dystopian stage strides an Australian wannabee thug. The opening curtain reveals Peter Dutton doing a fleeting cameo performance in a scene created by theatrical director Gina Rhinehart.

Paul Begley has worked for many years in public affairs roles, until recently as General Manager of Government and Media Relations with the Australian HR Institute. You can follow Paul on Twitter @yelgeb.

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