Peter Dutton’s Strathpine office is locked. Press the intercom. State your intentions. Once cleared, you may enter. This isn’t Australia’s borders. You’re not an asylum seeker on a boat. That would be another story.
Mr Dutton’s tough border protection stance is something he makes no apologies for. An Australian flag is displayed prominently in his spacious office. The couches are a shade of eucalyptus green reminiscent of the seats in the Lower House of Parliament. A dirty plate sits on his desk. A symbol perhaps that this is a busy man in the fight of his political life.
His election pitch is ready. “I have been a local member for 18 years, I have delivered an enormous amount of funding, supported families behind the scenes, fundraised, financially supported people in trouble locally and fought for what I believe is in the best interests of our local community,” Mr Dutton says.
Mr Dutton was elected to Parliament for the seat of Dickson in 2001 at the age of 30, defeating Cheryl Kernot, a prominent figure of Australian politics during the 1990s. Mr Dutton held the seat of Dickson by a mere 1.6 per cent margin at the last election. That has increased to an estimated 2 per cent following a redistribution in late 2017. About 1,500 voters need only change their mind and Mr Dutton would be gone, according to the activist group GetUp, who have set Dickson as their prime target for this election. Mr Dutton is facing a battle on many fronts.
Labor, the Greens and the union movement are baying for his blood. “I suspect Peter Dutton will lose Dickson because the tide will be firmly against the Government,” Clive Bean, Queensland University of Technology Professor of Political Science, says.
But Mr Dutton seems relaxed. And he has the steely resolve of a former police officer.
Sitting in his office, the sleeves of his Ralph Lauren shirt rolled up, he accuses the Labor candidate for Dickson, Ali France, of not knowing about the local community because she doesn’t live in the electorate. Mr Dutton says Ms France lives in Ashgrove, in inner-city Brisbane, instead of the outer northern suburbs which take in Dickson.
“The local members didn’t want her as their candidate,” Mr Dutton says. “They wanted and voted for Linda Lavarch because she’s a local and understands our local area. And Ms France was imposed with the support of factional leaders.”
Ms France disputes this and says Labor members in Dickson overwhelmingly endorsed her. “While Mr Dutton has been focussed on his own career in Canberra and doing deals with his big business mates, millions of dollars has been cut from Metro North hospitals and local schools in Dickson,” Ms France says.
Mr Dutton’s career in Canberra has seen him take ministerial roles under four Prime Ministers. John Howard gave him his first gig as Assistant Treasurer. Tony Abbott moved him into cabinet as the Health Minister. Mr Dutton was the architect of the controversial GP co-payment, later scrapped after a public outcry. He was voted the worst Health Minister of the last 35 years by readers of the Australian Doctor magazine.
Mr Abbott then transferred Mr Dutton to the Immigration and Border Protection Ministry. Mr Dutton acknowledges the difficulties of the portfolio. “This Government’s made decisions which haven’t always been popular, but they have been the right decisions to make,” he says. “I dedicated myself to getting children out of detention.”
But Mr Dutton is adamant people on Manus Island and Nauru will never set foot on mainland Australia. “The thought in this day and age you can bring people in who turn up on a boat having destroyed their documents, not knowing who they are, that you allow them to come and live in the community is an absurdity,” Mr Dutton says. He says the Government still doesn’t know the identity of some asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and Nauru. The Government has not published official numbers to back this claim, but according to The Daily Telegraph the number is about 500.
Mr Dutton is currently Australia’s first Minister for Home Affairs, a mega department established in 2017 that encompasses national security, intelligence and counter-terrorism. But last year Mr Dutton sought an even bigger role. Prime Minister of Australia.
In Mr Dutton’s telling he was the innocent and reluctant challenger. He says he held no animosity towards Malcolm Turnbull and contrasts it with the bitter and personal Rudd-Gillard and Abbott-Turnbull leadership tussles. Mr Dutton, along with the West Australian Senator Mathias Cormann, two of the government’s top conservatives, formed a “praetorian guard” for the moderate Turnbull.
“I had made every effort to support him (Turnbull), to make the Government work,” Mr Dutton says. “But the difficulty is you couldn’t walk out to the shops here without people stopping you saying, ‘you’ve got to get rid of him’.”
Many commentators argued Mr Turnbull was beholden by the conservatives of the Liberal Party on issues such as same-sex marriage and climate change. But this is something Mr Dutton finds perplexing. He furrows his brow. “What do you think that means when people say that? I presume they mean we didn’t become a Republic. I never had a conversation with Malcolm about the Republic, so that was something the right wing never stopped him from doing.”
On August 21, 2018 Mr Turnbull sensationally declared the Liberal leadership vacant following weeks of speculation about his leadership and media reports that Mr Dutton was looking to challenge. An all-out civil war between the moderates and conservatives of the Liberal Party played out. Mr Dutton, seen as the leader of the conservative faction, nominated for the position. “I did that because I thought I would give the Liberal Party the best chance of success at the upcoming election, which would have seen Bill Shorten stay out of office,” Mr Dutton says.
Timeline – Peter Dutton’s PM pursuit
Mr Turnbull secured 48 votes to Mr Dutton’s 35. “The vote was so close and then his leadership was finished,” Mr Dutton says. There was a second ballot a few days later. Mr Turnbull resigned. Mr Dutton was now up against Scott Morrison. Mr Dutton narrowly lost, 45-40. Mr Dutton pledged his support to Mr Morrison. Today he won’t say if he still holds leadership ambitions. He says his main focus is the upcoming election.
Some say the leadership challenge may cost Mr Dutton votes in Dickson. “I do not think his leadership tilt last year will help his cause, because he was cast in the light of a divisive force within the party,” Professor Bean says.
Samford RSL President Mark Orreal has interacted with Mr Dutton frequently to obtain Federal Government grants for local organisations such as the Rural Fire Brigade. Mr Orreal says Mr Dutton cares about the local community despite being a busy minister and attempting to become Prime Minister. “I think he’s a very fair person,” he says. “He’s been a great representative for the Dickson electorate because of his community-minded attitude.”
Polling by the Dutton campaign shows immigration is the topic Dickson voters care about the most. “That’s the number one issue that came through and I get regular feedback when I’m out in the community on that,” Mr Dutton says. “That would be people on both sides of the argument.” Cost of living and traffic congestion are the other issues that come up frequently in campaign polling.
Mr Dutton joined the Liberal Party aged 18. Thirty years later this police officer turned politician finds himself in yet another duel for the seat of Dickson.