Australia’s defeated conservative party, the Liberals, has elected a partisan warrior who has promised the party will return to the concerns of everyday people in opposition.
On Monday, Peter Dutton, long one of the most well-known and divisive figures in Australian politics, was elected unopposed to lead a Liberal party reckoning with their loss to Labor, as well as a swathe of heartland inner-city seats to independents and Greens promising climate action and government accountability.
“Our policies will be squarely aimed at the forgotten Australians in the suburbs across Australia. Under my leadership, the Liberal party will be true to our values,” Dutton said.
“I have held a marginal seat for two decades and know how to work with people and achieve outcomes for local communities.”
Dutton’s reputation as a hardliner was forged as minister for immigration and later home affairs. The former police officer from Queensland was the face of the Coalition’s border and national security policies, steadfastly staring down criticism about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention.
As immigration minister, Dutton argued in court against a child detainee in offshore detention coming to Australia for acute treatment, arguing they had not shown evidence of the seriousness of their condition. Dutton also attracted controversy for using his ministerial intervention powers to save two au pairs from deportation. At one point, he said asylum seeker women on the island of Nauru were “trying it on” in claiming they were raped and needed an abortion as part of a ploy to get to Australia for medical treatment and then changing their minds.
So entrenched was his aggressive political persona that when Dutton first challenged the Liberal leadership in 2018, he immediately sought to reframe his public image, promising to smile more and show a softer side. In 2019, his wife, Kirilly, told a Brisbane newspaper that “he’s no monster”.
Peter Dutton and their wife, Kirilly, in the Courier Mail in 2018. Photograph: Courier Mail
In his first press conference on Monday as a leader, Dutton sought to temper that image further, saying he had acted compassionately in hundreds of immigration cases and that media reports had not ever given a “complete picture” of his work in the role.
“I’m not going to change, but I want people to see the entire person I am and reserve and make their judgments when they meet me,” Dutton said.
Dutton, the son of a Brisbane builder, worked at his father’s business after leaving school, then joined the Queensland police service, where he worked with the drug squad, the sex offenders’ squad, and later the National Crime Authority. These were experiences he relayed in his maiden speech to parliament.
“I have seen the best and the worst that society has to offer,” Dutton told parliament. “I have seen the wonderful, kind nature of people willing to offer any assistance to those in their worst hour, and I have seen the sickening behavior displayed by people who, frankly, barely justify their existence in our sometimes over-tolerant society.”
Throughout his political career, he has remained a ferocious partisan and an outspoken advocate for conservative causes.
You dirty lefties are too easy. Enjoy your weekend.
— Peter Dutton (@PeterDutton_MP) December 9, 2011
Dutton was one of a handful of MPs who refused to attend the historic 2008 apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations. On Monday, he said he had “made a mistake about the apology, largely because of my background and experience”.
In 2017, Dutton told chief executives, including Qantas boss Alan Joyce, to stop using shareholders’ money to campaign for marriage equality. He said that “productivity went up” when the Fairfax media group journalists went on strike in 2017. He also suggested the country was paying for immigration “mistakes” made under Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, citing the number of people from Lebanese-Muslim backgrounds charged with “terrorist-related offenses” when asked to clarify the comments in parliament. And he claimed residents in Victoria were scared to leave their homes due to “African gang violence”.
Dutton was also famously caught on a hot mic joking about climate change and Pacific island nations having “water lapping at your door”, for which he later apologized.
More recently, as defense minister, he spoke hawkishly about China and overruled a decision – in the wake of a damning report into alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan – to strip meritorious service citations from SAS soldiers.
Facing a reckoning
Though he was defeated in 2018 in his tilt to become leader, he was elected unopposed by the depleted party room on Monday. He leads a party shorn of moderate MPs and one facing a reckoning – moderates say it must recalibrate to the center to win back heartland seats. In contrast, some rightwing commentators and others have called for a more conservative shift to embrace voters who have abandoned the Coalition for a collection of fringe parties.
Simon Birmingham, the most senior moderate in the Liberal party, said of Dutton: “we have agreed more often than people might expect”.
“Peter’s public perception is not always an accurate reflection of Peter’s true stance,” Birmingham said.
The new Labor prime minister, Anthony Albanese, wanted to work with Dutton where possible.
“I certainly have a good personal relationship with Peter Dutton. He has never broken confidence or his word to me,” he said.
But Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi said Dutton’s ascent was “another sad day for this broken outfit, who continue to drift further and faster to the extreme right”.
“While the rest of the parliament works to tackle the climate crisis, restore integrity, and address inequality, we expect Mr. Dutton to accelerate the Liberals’ descent into irrelevance.”
Dutton has said he isn’t “some extreme rightwing person” and wants to lead a “broad church” Liberal party.
He told the Guardian in 2018 that he had ambitions to be prime minister. Still, when asked whether leaders needed to build consensus rather than driving political wedges, he responded: “The short answer is yes, but you have to do it at the same time as you still adhere to the values that people know you believe in.”
“I think some leaders fall into the trap of abandoning principles or changing to somebody they think people want them to be, and I think that’s a huge mistake.”