Dutton and Trump politics

Jun 7, 2022
Dutton -Ley Liberal Leadership Press Conference
Peter Dutton, stuck with policies that are increasingly irrelevant. Image: AAP / Lukas Coch

The mainstream media in Australia is currently whitewashing fascist politics. It is not just sycophantic, or lazy, journalism. It is dangerous.

When Peter Dutton was named the leader of the LNP opposition last week, a number of poor pieces emerged about giving the “hard man a go” to prove who he is. One of the most supine was from Jacqueline Maley at Fairfax.

These soft columns mention some of the ugly acts of Dutton’s past, such as walking out of the apology to the Stolen Generation. He has apologised for that, blaming his background, presumably as a Queensland cop. Dutton has also apologised this week for joking about the existential threat that climate change poses to our island neighbours. He described this bigoted quip as “in poor taste.”

What these articles have not detailed is Dutton’s appalling record as head of Immigration. In 2017, the government paid out $70 million to refugees and asylum seekers to avoid having the lawyers’ meticulously documented trail of abuse of innocent people laid out in court. The solicitors described it as the largest human rights class action settlement in Australian history.

The life of refugees on Manus and Nauru is indeed well documented in its horror. Women coerced by guards to provide sexual favours to have enough water to wash out their shampoo or clean their children in the overwhelming heat. Women forced to queue for each issue of a sanitary item. People abused for taking a piece of fruit for later from the nursery-hour dinner. Tents smeared in black mould found to be “highly toxic,” with only a small fan to make the heat less intolerable. Utterly inadequate medical care.

The point of this treatment, under Morrison as well as Dutton, was to make the Taliban or the genocidal Sri Lankan army or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard less horrific than Australia. During Labor’s last term, detention was a process. Under the nine years of LNP government, it became an intolerable dead end. Guards travelled with Hoffman knives as standard issue to cut down suicide attempts. People lay through the stifling days, depression-drugged, in dank tents without home to return to or hope for the future.

Eventually the children on Nauru declined into resignation syndrome. They were literally dying of despair, but Dutton wasted taxpayer money in the courts to avoid evacuating them from Nauru.

When he was eventually forced by Medevac legislation to bring the most ill adults to Australia, their treatment can only be described as vengeful. Those closest to death received medical care; the rest continued barely helped. They were imprisoned in Alternative Places of Detention, robbed of the ability to walk the streets or choose a meal. After they communicated with people outside their windows, or for fear of more suicides, some were even robbed of fresh air. These men with damaged health were made more anxious by utterly inadequate pandemic provisions. It was only the spotlight shone on their treatment by Novak Djokovic being locked in one of the hotel prisons that provoked outrage and eventual freedom. This extraordinary waste of money took place while their families and friends in the community could have housed them at minimal cost to the country.

The Murugappan family illustrated the treatment of the refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, not much better than the abuse offshore. Fleeing a genocidal army must have made being dragged from their house by uniformed men at dawn even more terrifying. (Dogs often accompanied this kind of night raid perpetrated on vulnerable people as they were moved around at the whim of the department.) YouTube still holds the video of the sound of the girls’ screams as armed guards kept them from their mother. The children have long slept with their parents, scared of what might happen next, or the procession of guards inspecting them at night, torches glaring over their beds. They had teeth pulled because of rot from a lack of vitamin D. In Melbourne, these little girls did not have time in the sun to produce the vitamin.

These stories are not isolated and they happened in our suburbs and small towns to so many other people Australians don’t know about. This was possible because the victims, ordinary people fleeing our nightmares, were dehumanised and hidden from our sight.

Dutton repeatedly misled the public about the conditions under which people lived, the quality of healthcare to which they had access, or suggested that the people living in harsh conditions were of criminal character and deserved it. And none of this was necessary. Labor’s boat turnbacks had made the extortionate price of this last-resort path unviable. Daily cruelties to make Australia intolerable were not truly perpetrated to “send a message” that people smugglers must stop. They were attempts to make Australia’s reputation cruel and ugly, so that nobody would ever want to come here that Peter Dutton didn’t invite. White African farmers, white Ukrainians or au pairs might receive mercy. No mercy is granted the non-white or the Muslim outside our pitifully small humanitarian visa program.

Fascist is a term thrown around loosely; fascist politics is a more useful concept. Yale philosopher Jason Stanley defines it as identifying enemies and appealing to “an in-group (usually the majority), and smashing the truth and replacing it with power.” Dutton and his party defined people who arrived by boat as our enemies, as likely to be radicalised and to harm us. More recently, Scott Morrison seemed keen to echo our AUKUS allies in adding the tiny cohort of trans youth to the list of enemy threats. These culture war battles are divorced from fact but aim to deploy rage to distract a resentful voter base. These trumped-up panics are accompanied in Australia, Britain and the USA by a rapid decline in our democratic standing.

Dutton has signalled that his leadership is to be about culture war battles and division. After Albanese included the three Australian flags in his press briefings, Dutton made the ostentatious step of appearing in front of the Blue Ensign alone. First Nations Australians are to be invisible. After 9 years in government, Dutton has discovered the “forgotten people” of the suburbs. This dogwhistle is to announce the fact that Morrison’s “quiet Australians” remain the target of culture war divisiveness.

Biden defeated Trump in the US. Boris Johnson’s career remains precarious, but his party’s hold is not. Our May election gave the Liberal Party the thumping it had earned. None of these countries is safe. It has taken decades for the radical right in America to suppress the votes of those not caught up in its culture war campaigns. It may be that there are not enough to fight back against the Republican’s authoritarian trajectory in 2022 and 2024.

Without a strong news media, Australia faces a clouded future. Albanese’s government may be able to repair our Rule of Law protections adequately to protect us into the future from the international right’s authoritarian games. The radical right might lose their hold on the Liberal and National parties. We have seen in America, however, that this form of the right is prepared to play the long game. Journalists that help them whitewash their cruelest actions aid them in this plan.

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