JOHN MENADUE. Attacks on refugees tell us more about Malcolm Turnbull than Peter Dutton.

May 23, 2016

Power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true of power, is that power always reveals.’ Robert Caro.

Peter Dutton has ‘form’, so his comments about refugees although disgraceful are not that surprising.

The big disappointment has been Malcolm Turnbull who described Peter Dutton as ‘an outstanding immigration minister’. Instead of a firm rebuke from our Prime Minister, Dutton got praise and with his winsome way with words Malcolm Turnbull even suggested that Peter Dutton was being ‘demonised’.

We had a right to expect that as a Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull would have handled this sensitive issue of refugees with great care and dignity. Xenophobia and racism is not far below the surface in all of us. We are all cautious about the foreigner, the outsider and person that is different.

In this sensitive area leaders need to appeal to our ‘better angels ‘and avoid encouraging our ‘darker angels’. But Malcolm Turnbull chose quite deliberately to appeal to the worst in all of us with his misplaced praise of Dutton.

‘Community’ is essential for our national and social wellbeing. But like a delicate flower it can be easily fractured in careless and clumsy hands.

The Prime Minister represents the whole community. He symbolizes our national aspirations. But he has put personal and party interests ahead of national unity.

We have a society built through migration and refugees. And we have done it very well. But it is always work in progress and requires sensitive and careful management. Malcolm Turnbull failed to provide leadership in this sensitive and key area.

It also tells us that his ‘economic plan for jobs and growth’ is politically not working. As Paul Bongiorno described it in the Saturday Paper on 21 May, it recalls earlier days when Malcolm Turnbull’s predecessor, Brendon Nelson, had agreed with the Rudd government’s dismantling of the Howard-era Pacific Solution. As the boats began to trickle back, Turnbull was asked by a back-bench liberal why he was passing up the chance to restore the bipartisanship that existed on refugees before Howard torpedoed it in 2001. In the face of a still dominant Labor government, Turnbull responded ‘it’s all we’ve got’.

With the sharp decline in the government’s standing, Malcolm Turnbull is in effect saying once again on boat arrivals ‘it’s all we’ve got’.

But to return to Peter Dutton’s ‘form’.

He was the only Coalition Shadow Minister who refused to support the parliamentary resolution on the Stolen Generation.

He was formerly Minister for Health, but did not last long. Before his removal from the Health portfolio, the Australian Doctor magazine polled 1,100 doctors. They voted Peter Dutton as the worst Health Minister in 35 years.

As Minister for Health, he was the proponent of the $7 co-payment plan which was heckled off the stage.

In December 2014, he was moved to the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio. Since then there has been a plethora of problems.

Michelle Grattan in The Conversation describes him as a ‘menace to multicultural Australia’.

As the tragedy and inhumanity has unfolded on Nauru and Manus, he has blamed refugee advocates for the self-harm and suicides that have occurred. He refuses to accept his own responsibility for the cruelty imposed in our name.

On the basis of incorrect information, he attacked the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs for her comments on the treatment of asylum seekers.

He said ‘it is complete nonsense’ that Senator Hanson Young had been spied on by security guards on Nauru. Subsequently, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection conceded that the Senator had been spied on.

We can all recall the action of his department in spot-checking residents in the streets of the Melbourne CBD.

Following the administration of Scott Morrison in the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio, Peter Dutton continued to shift the emphasis of the department from nation-building to border protection. Senior and key people fled the department. Corporate memory was lost. It is no surprise then that after 8 months from announcement that we would take 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq, only 400 refugees have arrived. In a shorter time Canada has received over 26,000 refugees. Peter Dutton’s department has been stripped of the expertise to manage quickly and efficiently the movement of large numbers of people in distress.

He disparaged Pacific Island leaders who were late for a meeting. He said that with rising sea levels ‘time does not matter if you are about to have water lapping at your door’.

At least Tony Abbott was sensible enough not to include Peter Dutton in the Cabinet National Security Committee.

And after all that, Malcolm Turnbull describes him as an ‘outstanding Immigration Minister’.

This support of Peter Dutton is one of a series of disappointments that we have seen repeatedly from Malcolm Turnbull – from climate change to the republic, and now to refugees.

As Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro said:

Power doesn’t always corrupt. Power can cleanse. What I believe is always true of power, is that power always reveals.’

The exercise of power is revealing to us a lot about Malcolm Turnbull.

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