Peter Dutton: Australia’s MAGA rock star

Jul 4, 2024
Australian Opposition Leader Peter Dutton reacts during Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, July 2, 2024. IImage: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Last month New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks interviewed self-described MAGA (Make America Great Again) War Room street fighter Steve Bannon about the rise of right-wing populism. Among the takeaways were Bannon’s view that the MAGA movement is moving further and faster to the right than Donald Trump, that the battles they’re fighting are essentially ‘unrestricted narrative warfare’ in the media and that a central tool for fighting the war is listening for the ‘signal’, not the ‘noise’.

Bannon said to Brooks “You’re a conservative, but you’re not dangerous. You’re reasonable. We’re not reasonable. We’re unreasonable because we’re fighting for a republic. And we’re never going to be reasonable until we get what we achieve. We’re not looking to compromise. We’re looking to win.”

The Bannon interview was published on the day that the US Supreme Court, populated by at least two likely MAGA justices in Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, handed down a majority 6-3 decision that took the movement another step towards a win. The tool it used appeared to be its preparedness to toy with unreasonableness to get what MAGA wants by giving Donald Trump ‘presumptive immunity’ for criminal actions he undertook when president, even to the outer edge of his official duties. That decision makes him, according to one of the dissenting Justices Sonia Sotomayor, “a king above the law”.

Bannon saw the MAGA narrative playing out beyond America, saying we “spend at least 20 percent of our time talking about international elements in our movement. So we’ve made Nigel (Farage) a rock star, Giorgia Meloni a rock star. Marine Le Pen is a rock star. Geert (Wilders) is a rock star.”

In due course Bannon might add to those populist rock stars the name of Peter Dutton. Malcolm Turnbull inadvertently helped Dutton’s street fighter credentials by labelling him a ‘thug’, and Dutton has shown he hears the signal rather than the noise, though he is happy to make abundant contributions to the noise.

At his great cost, Dutton’s political opponent, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, appears only to hear and respond to the noise. And to a large extent the noise to which Albanese responds is that which has been created by Dutton and his dominant media allies. The noise is largely fictional but it’s attention grabbing and is different every day. It might be connected yesterday to AUKUS and containment of a supposedly bellicose China, the criminality of immigrants, a nuclear energy fantasy, suspicious Palestinian refugees, or the PM failing, as his three LNP predecessors did, to attend NATO in person.

Today Dutton has the solution to the supermarket duopoly problem (which he hasn’t, and in which he has no interest). Tomorrow, who knows? Anything will do if it wins the attention of a debased media class. Each piece of noise is intended to throw Albanese off balance, but only if he decides to listen to it, which he invariably does, especially if it involves cosying up to his declared enemies and taking his friends for granted.

While Dutton fills the media zone with fragments of mischief-making garbage to distract Albanese, he enunciates clear signals that sound like this: “The Albanese government has failed to provide the moral clarity … which differentiates civilisation from barbarism, and which discerns the good from the evil.”

The signal must be uncomplicated. It must embody pedestrian simplicity on an existential scale. Like the good Christian King Richard the Lionheart fighting the evil Muslim Saladin 12 centuries ago, Dutton is reigniting the Crusade wars fought in the name of good versus evil, but by using the twenty-first century methods of his American MAGA mentor. The media lifeblood is noise. They can be relied upon to play along.

Dutton made his simplistic claim of discerning the good from the evil on 10 April 2024 at a time when Albanese and Labor Foreign Minister Penny Wong were considering how Australia would vote on a United Nations resolution that touched on a two-state resolution and a possible ceasefire in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which by then had cost tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians’ lives.

In the context of war by starvation the Australian Government had withdrawn funding from UNRWA in response to Israeli allegations, the body facilitating aid. It then belatedly reversed the decision and resumed the funding when the information that prompted the withdrawal proved unreliable.

Albanese and Wong dutifully prefaced their remarks with acknowledgements of the 7 October Hamas atrocity and Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’, a problematic right with respect to an occupying power. At the same time, Wong was calling in vain for Israel to exercise ‘restraint’.

The background to the Government’s indecisive language was Dutton’s clarion call via the dominant Murdoch-led media for ‘moral clarity’. There was undoubtedly a need for clarity on the matter because whatever motivations drove the Albanese Government’s responses, clarity was not one of them. Every time Albanese and Wong spoke, they sounded ambiguous and uncertain.

That said, there was precious little that was moral about Dutton’s call for clarity. It was a call for the type of certainty that John Howard enunciated in the days following Israel’s declaration of collective punishment for Palestinians in the wake of the 7 October attack. Howard demanded that Albanese and Wong stop their “pussyfooting and lukewarm condemnation” of Hamas and called on them to make “unequivocal statements”, which he knew they were loathe to make.

Singing from the Howard hymnbook, Dutton demanded as early as 16 October that “there must be no restraint shown to those who showed no restraint themselves in committing these vicious and vile acts of terrorism.”

Dutton-style moral clarity involves Australia giving unambiguous support to Netanyahu’s declared intention to unleash collective punishment on the Palestinian people for the sins of Hamas. Howard might have been called a war criminal by Liberal Party President John Valder for stubbornly taking Australia into the misguided Iraq adventure on flawed information in 2003, but Howard had an ear tuned to the signal rather than the noise. Like Dutton, Howard had created the noise himself around weapons of mass destruction, September 11 and crusading regime change aimed at toppling the evil Saddam Hussein.

The signal then as now is a form of clarity which ‘discerns the good from the evil”. Indecision, ambiguity, equivocation, pussyfooting and lukewarm condemnation are self-evidently evil, and Albanese by his behaviour is forced to plead guilty to those evils, which can be summed up by the word ‘antisemitic’, adding yet another fictional fragment of noise.

Decisiveness, certainty, boldness and a declaration of unconditional support for what’s good can be simply summed up in the phrase ‘moral clarity’, masking the brutal disproportionality of the actions proposed and carried out by Benjamin Netanyahu.

All the while PM Albanese desperately tries to cosy up to his enemies by responding to Dutton’s noise. In the process Albanese neglects his friends in the mistaken belief that they have nowhere else to go so will stay with him.

While Dutton played his Christian crusade, a lowly Muslim Senator by the name of Fatima Payman tried to uncomplicate matters by calling on the Prime Minister to honour his principles and the Labor Party platform by recognising the state of Palestine and committing to a two-state Middle East solution. Instead, Albanese ‘temporarily’ suspended Payman from the Labor caucus, then in a moment of hubris he ‘indefinitely’ suspended her. Now he notices unsurprisingly that two of his key ministers’ seats are being threatened by supporters of the Senator, so he talks about reversing his bans and welcoming her back. By Dutton’s measure of awarding points in the game of good versus evil, Albanese has kicked an own goal.

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