Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister and possibly the nation’s most divisive member of parliament is blunt about everything – even his own ambition. “Of course I want to be prime minister,” Dutton tells Guardian Australia. He pauses for half a beat. “One day”.
“I think it’s best to be honest about that, that’s an ambition long-held and is only realistic if stars align and an opportunity comes up.”
Dutton was Tony Abbott’s man. Then he was Malcolm Turnbull’s. Few question his loyalty, even as he emerges as the unofficial figurehead of the conservative wing of the Liberal party, and as right-wing commentators sing his praises and mention his name in dispatches about the leadership.
As the immigration minister, and now heading the powerful super-portfolio of home affairs, Dutton has become the resolute salesman of the Coalition’s border policies, staring down almost weekly criticism about inhumane conditions on Manus Island and Nauru with an unflinching conviction that looks like indifference.
That steadfastness is his defining characteristic, agreed by friends and political enemies. His best and worst trait. Dutton is a man with an unshakeable world view. A man of conviction. An ideologue.
But the sort of person who could lead the country? Doesn’t a prime minister, a leader, have a responsibility to build consensus, rather than drive wedges?
“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,” Dutton says in an interview with Guardian Australia, just weeks after declaring that this publication, along with other “crazy lefties” were “completely dead” to him.
“There are many people on the left who will never vote for me or any other Liberal member of parliament in their lifetime and that’s fine. There are many people on the right who will never vote for a Labor member of parliament.
“A position of leadership comes with additional responsibility and a desire to bring people together, but still expressing principle.
“I think some leaders fall into the trap of abandoning principles or changing to somebody that they think people want them to be, and I think that’s a huge mistake.”
Tony Abbott describes Dutton as “the outstanding minister of the Turnbull government” and has no hesitation when asked if the home affairs minister would make a good prime minister.
“Of course,” he says, laughing when asked if he thinks that might happen sooner rather than later.
Dutton lost his position on the national security committee of cabinet after the 2015 leadership spill, in which he backed fellow conservative Abbott. He offered his resignation to Turnbull, who decided to keep Dutton in situ as minister for immigration and border protection. Two things have been crucial to Dutton’s rise since.
The first is that, with finance minister and fellow conservative Mathias Cormann, his backing has become crucial to Turnbull’s leadership.
The second is the way Dutton has maintained his credibility with the hard core of conservatives, including commentators and Abbott supporters, who railed against Turnbull’s ascent. The Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen first wrote in July last year that Dutton should lead the party, saying it was a boon that he was “loathed by all the right people”.
Abbott insists another tick in Dutton’s column is his performance as immigration minister.
“He has faithfully maintained the strong border protection policies that were put in place,” Abbott says. “In maintaining those policies he has kept our borders safe and he’s stopped the deaths at sea.
“He’s also been unapologetic about the fact that Australia’s immigration program should be run in Australia’s national interest and I think that’s been a very welcome change from Labor.”
Abbott says Dutton has “strong views and good values”.
“Too many politicians bend in the breeze. Too many politicians won’t tell you what they think.
“I’m not surprised that the PM has found him to be a very reliable minister and a very good colleague, because that’s what he was to me.
“The public Peter is just one aspect of the complete Peter. But there are certainly no inconsistencies between the two.”
Cathy McGowan, the independent member for Indi in Victoria, says Dutton, his staff and department are polite and accommodating.
“I ring up and say ‘can I have a meeting to talk about what’s happening at Manus. Can I have a briefing’. I will then argue my case on behalf of my constituents: this seems overly cruel, is there anything we can do about it.
“The relationship is very respectful and cordial and professional. But I have no success at all in changing his mind. So that’s how it works.”
McGowan says Dutton is “a man of great conviction”.
“Because he really believes what he does. How else could you do it? I can’t imagine how, unless you actually believe that what you are doing is right, you couldn’t keep people in Nauru and Manus. I’m sure he’s convinced he’s right.”
“[McGowan] would advocate for nobody to go into detention, and that’s essentially a recipe for European-Mediterranean style mass casualties and a complete loss of our borders, so if that’s the criticism, that I won’t bend on our Operation Sovereign Borders policy, then that’s a criticism that’s going to remain,” he says
As immigration minister, Dutton is the ultimate arbiter of whether someone can come to Australia. Last month, Guardian Australia reported the case of a 10-year-old refugee boy who made repeated attempts to kill himself while held on Nauru, and who had been ordered moved to Australia for care. Dutton’s home affairs department fought the injunction.
Asked if there are decisions he regrets, Dutton does not nominate cases like this, but alludes to ones “where I’ve made a decision not to cancel a visa and somebody has then gone on to commit further offences”.
“My job is to act in the national interest, and then look at the individual circumstances of a case, but ultimately the biggest consideration for me is what’s in our best interests as a country. I see that as my primary role as a minister of state.
“In any of these jobs where there are tough decisions, it does take a personal toll, there’s no question about that. But I think that’s balanced by the good you know that you’re doing in other areas of the portfolio. In some cases, you’re reading through horrific circumstances around a particular case and there’s no easy option. In many circumstances you’re faced with two options, if you have the luxury of two options, and neither is palatable but a decision has to be made. But I’d be disingenuous to say there’s not a personal toll in these sorts of jobs.
“I practise in an area where there’s raw emotion and there’s a lot of understandable human sympathy … and I believe that’s a perfectly legitimate response for people to have, particularly where children are involved.”
In the past weeks, Dutton has been called a racist and a fascist by the Greens senator Nick McKim and photoshopped as a Nazi by the barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside. These are the sorts of attacks he uses to portray that the left is hysterical and malicious.
“Burnside was saying the same things of Philip Ruddock and no doubt Chris Bowen and others,” Dutton says. “That’s his way of attracting attention to his business and his cause, so it’s best seen in that context than some personal attack. And McKim, like [Sarah] Hanson-Young before, there’s nothing in common that we have, we don’t share any world view. There will always be a great divide between my perspective and McKim that will never be reconciled and that’s probably a good thing for the both of us.
“What is the root cause of their hatred towards me? It’s Manus. It’s Nauru. It’s border protection policy. So they use all of these other issues as proxies for their attack on me.
“They seek to contort words that you’ve said, because they’re running a different agenda.”
Dutton, for his own part, has a long history of antagonising the left. He boycotted the historic 2007 apology to the stolen generations, saying later that he regarded it as something “which was not going to deliver tangible outcomes to kids who are being raped and tortured in communities in the 21st century”. He told chief executives, including the Qantas boss, Alan Joyce, to stop using shareholders’ money to campaign for marriage equality. He led calls for the resignation of the human rights commission president Gillian Triggs; he said “productivity went up” when Fairfax journalists went on strike in 2017; and claimed the country was paying for immigration mistakes made under Malcolm Fraser.
He showed rare emotion in February when he was publicly thanked by the family of Cole Miller, a Brisbane teen killed in a one-punch attack, for deporting one of the instigators to New Zealand. The conversation with Miller’s father visibly affected Dutton, who choked back tears. Such reactions – the ability to show compassion and humanity in some circumstances, but apparently not in others – have as much as anything turned Dutton into a hate figure of the left, and encouraged a following from elements of the far right.
It’s impossible to ignore the contrast in the plights Dutton has championed and those he has played down. White South African farmers are “persecuted” and living in “horrific circumstances” and could be given fast-track Australian visas. But last year his immigration department offered thousands of dollars in resettlement packages to Rohingya refugees on Manus Island, encouraging them to discontinue their asylum applications and return to Myanmar where the government has been accused of ethnic cleansing.
Dutton objects to suggestions his comments on white South African farmers are dogwhistles to his conservative base.
“Look, that’s how people seek to portray it,” he says. “It would be factually correct if the composition of the refugee and humanitarian program wasn’t as diverse as it is. It’s not discriminatory against people of any skin colour or religion. I mean, we bring in people from literally four corners of the earth under that program”.
There was a righteousness in Dutton even before he entered parliament.
In the weeks after his first election win in 2001, Dutton took himself to New York to stand at the site of the September 11 attacks and reflect on his new mission. He wasn’t supposed to win the seat of Dickson, on Brisbane’s northwestern outskirts. In March 2001, Labor won a byelection in the neighbouring seat of Ryan with a near 10% swing. The opinion polls, just months before the election, showed Labor set to oust John Howard’s government. And Dutton was running in a Labor-held seat.
But then came Tampa. Then came September 11. Then children overboard. The perfect storm of crises, propelling Howard to an election win, and Dutton into parliament.
When he returned from New York in early 2002, those close to him at the time say he was invigorated by the experience. When he walked into parliament for the first time, he did so with a mission.
In his maiden speech to parliament, Dutton laid markers for a concept that would play out over almost two decades and end with him as arguably the country’s most powerful politician.
In 2002, Dutton argued for better information-sharing between law enforcement agencies and government departments “with this end in mind: when does the right of privacy for the individual start to impinge on the common good of society?”.
Civil liberties councils, he said, were just a publicity machine for criminal lawyers. The “boisterous minority and the politically correct” have a disproportionate say in debate.
Dutton says his world view was certainly shaped by his former career as a detective, where he worked sex crimes and on the drug squad. “Anybody who has had a work history is shaped by that experience,” he says.
“I went to uni when I left school, but I was a police officer at a young age and in those formative years and I’d seen good and bad in that job. So I do think that shapes your world view.”
He tells Guardian Australia that in 17 years as a politician, his views have “mature(d) over time”. He sticks by criticisms of judges in “certain jurisdictions”, mainly about bail decisions. But he’s cautious to toe a line. “You do have to get the balance right, but I don’t advocate the trampling of people’s rights.”
Dutton is measured and careful in his response when asked about privacy concerns around the collation of data by intelligence agencies, and the use of biometrics to track people.
“I think there needs to be the right balance found. We need to have proper safeguards around privacy and I’m absolutely in favour of that. We have some of the toughest laws in the world in terms of privacy, and nothing I advocate would be outside of the law as it currently exists.”
Terry O’Gorman was the nemesis of a once heavy-handed and corrupt Queensland police force, a key figure in the Fitzgerald inquiry that brought reforms to the police about the time Dutton earned his first stripe.
He says Dutton’s dislike of the civil liberties council, which O’Gorman has headed on and off since the 1980s, was typical of many police in that post-Fitzgerald era. And he has seen little evidence that Dutton’s views have matured.
“His illiberal views have continued to the present day. His almost despicable dislike for the concept of civil liberties.”
“His world view is as a copper. He’s the unofficial national police minister.”
Dutton argues that the Liberal party is no more conservative than when he came into parliament 17 years ago.
“John Howard led the party for well over a decade and was conservative and those values are reflected in the Liberal party. The same values I saw in the Liberal party before I entered parliament I still see today.”
That view is not shared by many current and former members of the moderate wing of the Liberal party, “small l” liberals who believe they’re fighting an increasingly futile battle. Very few Coalition moderates were willing to speak, and none on the record, for a Guardian Australia piece on Dutton, for fear of being tagged as agitators. Some members of the wet wing of the Liberal party expressed private concerns about the strength of Dutton’s rhetoric and the extent of his power as home affairs minister. There was, they said, very little to gain from speaking out now.
John Blaxland, the official Australian Security and Intelligence Service (Asio) historian and former army intelligence officer, who heads the strategic and defence studies centre at the Australian National University, says the home affairs office amounts to “the unprecedented peacetime aggregation of power in one department”.
“No one within the national security structure was advocating for this [home affairs] model,” he says.
Under previous arrangements, Asio and the federal police had statutory independence within the attorney-general’s portfolio. The attorney-general will remain responsible for the issuing of Asio warrants, but the agency’s operations will fall under the umbrella of home affairs.
“I would contend that one of the key reasons [Australian security agencies] have been effective is the … shared but clear lines of responsibility. I am concerned that untangling that relationship between those agencies will prove problematic and dangerous,” Blaxland says.
“It [also] reduces the contestability of advice to government. It funnels them through one secretary and one minister.
“The public relations and operational risks in concentration of responsibilities in one secretary and one minister, I think, are too great. Why do that? Why set up one critical point of potential failure?
“The system was working, building on decades of incremental and time-tested reforms. No public document or report advocated this [home affairs] model … [and] major reforms should emerge from major reviews.”
Blaxland believes “good people” within the department will ultimately allow the new structure to function, but that the rationale for the department needs to be better explained. “Not for some esoteric reason, but because it matters to make it work.”
Labor has preselected Ali France to run against Dutton in Dickson. France is the daughter of a former state MP, Peter Lawlor, and is well known in Brisbane as a disability advocate, who lost a leg after being hit by a car about seven years ago. France credits an Iraq-born surgeon, Munjed Al Muderis, who came to the country as an asylum seeker, for her ability to walk. Her past statements and positions on offshore detention grate with Labor’s cautious policies. She’s almost the anti-Dutton.
France is articulate and likeable; a dream candidate to many on the left. But that’s not likely to win her many additional votes. Labor’s campaign will steer her towards safer hip-pocket issues, towards the safe ground of health and education. Dutton’s will almost certainly bang the drum on immigration policy.
That fascinating dynamic will be complicated by GetUp!, which claims to have already raised more than $200,000 to campaign against Dutton in Dickson.
“He’s certainly our top priority because he is such a dangerous individual, with his attempts to get hold of so many institutions, to weaken the judiciary” the GetUp national director, Paul Oosting, says.
Dutton says the GetUp! campaign is “certainly something we seek to overcome.”
“In 2007 in the WorkChoices campaign, the unions were on the ground full time for months and GetUp! had a huge presence at the last election in Dickson. So it just means we need to adapt, we need to raise more money than them, we need to get greater resources and we’re in the process of doing that.”
Turnbull was in Dickson on Tuesday, still a year from an expected election, to announce funding for a road project. Dutton stands next to the prime minister, as rigid as the day in 1990 when he graduated from the Queensland police academy. His arms hang firmly by his side. Dutton’s left hand has a twitch, but he resists the urge to place it in his pocket. His voice never changes tone.
At the news conference, Turnbull takes questions about the group of mainly conservative backbenchersagitating in favour of coal-fired power. Dutton then responds to a question about backbenchers agitating for him to become leader.
“I haven’t seen any of that and I’ve got no comment.” he says, before buttoning his coat and walking off. Ever the copper. Move along, nothing to see here.
An hour later, Dutton and Turnbull are at the Kallangur country women’s association hall, speaking to a group of mainly retirees, pounding the parish pump and drinking tea from floral cups with matching saucers.
Sylvia from the CWA says she often can’t relate to the attacks on Dutton, her approachable local member.
“When you read that sort of thing, it’s not the same person you know,” she says.
A few people crowd around Turnbull while he takes a selfie. Standing off to the side, huffing, is Charles Doyle. Is he going to line up for a picture with the prime minister?
“No fucking way,” Doyle says. A former Liberal member, Doyle has recently joined the Australian Conservatives. He sees a lot of former Liberal members at the new party’s meetings. He jokes, in a friendly sort of way, that the Guardian will probably make him sound like a fascist.
“I will support Peter Dutton, but I won’t support Malcolm Turnbull,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, he’d like to see Dutton as prime minister.
“He would surprise the extreme left by not being as extreme right as they paint him. He’s an honest man and gets things done. He doesn’t mince his words. Give him a chance.”
Dutton remains a linchpin of Turnbull’s support, even as the Coalition is on the verge of losing 30 news polls in a row. Two days ago, Dutton publicly warned cabinet ministers they should resign if they didn’t support the prime minister.
Still, Dutton has positioned himself as the clear conservative option should Turnbull fall. He appeals to conservatives for many of the reasons Turnbull doesn’t: Dutton is a man driven completely by his personal convictions, his sense of right and wrong, however misguided or unpopular.
He has held on to those convictions, some formed on the police beat, throughout his political career. And he’s done so in the face of vitriol, in the face of reasoned argument, and sometimes in the face of political common sense. But Peter Dutton would rather break than bend.