Australian government’s right-wing hard man is a sensitive soul really

Sydney Letter: What so upset Peter Dutton was coverage of his new-found concern for white South African farmers

Peter Dutton, minister for home affairs and a former policeman, is supposed to be the right-wing hard man in Australia's Liberal-National government.

He is the man whose ministry was created in order to placate the right of the ruling Liberal Party under centrist prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. The home affairs ministry is just eight months old and encompasses immigration, border control, domestic security, law enforcement, cybersecurity, federal police, secret service, citizenship and multicultural affairs.

Not for nothing is Dutton called “the minister for everything”.

He burnished his conservative credentials in 2008 when the then Labor government apologised to Aboriginal children removed from their families to be raised by white people. Dutton refused to endorse the apology.


In 2016 he composed a text message describing a female journalist as a “mad f**king witch”, but inadvertently sent it to her.

And last year he rounded on companies who backed same-sex marriage in Australia, singling out Irish man Alan Joyce, who is the head of the Qantas airline. CEOs "shouldn't shove their views down our throats", Dutton said.

Hard-man persona

But it seems the hard-man persona was just an act; Dutton is a sensitive soul really. Last week he said he hit back at “the crazy lefties” in the media who “draw mean cartoons about me”, adding: “They don’t realise how completely dead they are to me.”

The coverage that so upset Dutton was over his new-found concern for white South African farmers. When it was put to him on a radio show that white farmers were being subjected to violence from black people trying to drive them from their land, Dutton said they faced “an horrific circumstance” and that he was looking at how to expedite their entry to Australia on humanitarian grounds, because they needed “help from a civilised country like ours”.

He said they were the sort of immigrants Australia needed, prepared to “abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard, not lead a life on welfare”.

His words were carefully chosen to sound a dog whistle message. Before Christmas he had spoken of people in suburban Melbourne being afraid to go out to a restaurant lest they be attacked by African “crime gangs”.

South Africa was not amused by Dutton butting into its affairs. Australia's ambassador in Pretoria was summoned for a dressing down and South African foreign ministry officials were quoted as saying they "could not believe" Dutton's comments about immigration and that when they asked Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop, about them she effectively said they should ignore him.

Dutton rejected the claim that the offer to white South African farmers was being withdrawn, despite his assertions being completely debunked.

Greater risk

Gareth Newham of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies said there was no evidence to support the idea that white farmers were targeted more than anyone else.

“In fact, young black males living in poor urban areas like Khayelitsha and Lange face a far greater risk of being murdered. The murder rate there is between 200 and 300 ... per 100,000 people,” Newham said.

So, if Dutton’s concern for South Africa’s white farmers is not backed up by facts, what is his real agenda? The answer most likely lies with his political self-preservation instinct.

He holds his constituency of Dickson in Queensland on a margin of 1.6 per cent which, if the current polling holds, means he will lose his seat in an election due in about 12 months. But there are a large number of white South Africans living in the area – 1.3 per cent of the local population was born in South Africa – and Dutton will do all he can to hold on to their votes.

His sensitive side was on show again last week when he said it was in the “public interest” to grant a visa to a foreign au pair after using his ministerial powers to intervene in her case. He rejected inferences that he personally benefited from the decision, saying his family “does not employ an au pair”. But the story, by the Australian Associated Press news agency, had not said any such thing. It just reported the facts: that for two years “Dutton’s department has been trying to suppress key details of the case and the reasons underpinning the decision”.

So Dutton’s concern for some apparently random au pair was just about him and his big, cuddly heart? Probably.

Fortunately for Dutton, much of Australia is too busy engaging in a bout of self-righteous angst over a cricket ball-tampering incident to pay much attention.