Is Peter Dutton the Steven Bradbury of Australian Politics?

If the Minister for Home Affairs can actually seize Malcolm Turnbull's job, he's either a genius or the luckiest guy who's ever come to Canberra.

|
10 April 2018, 5:45am

Collage via Shutterstock

It looks like Australia is back at our nerdiest national past time—wildly speculating who will be our next prime minister—after Malcolm Turnbull this week lost his 30th Newspoll in a row. Normally, a bad poll wouldn't be enough to roll a PM, even in Australia's notoriously volatile political climate. But 30 consecutive bad Newspolls was what Turnbull used to justify ditching Tony Abbott back in 2015. And if there's one thing that Australians who care about politics and also have Twitter love, it's dredging up things that public figures said years ago and dragging them for it.

Rumours of a leadership spill are nothing new; once they were a weekly occurrence. But what's interesting here is the name that's floated to the top: Peter Dutton. Not Abbott, deputy leader Julie Bishop, or even treasurer Scott Morrison, but Dutton. The man who oversees one of the most controversial and divisive portfolios in the government. Dutton, who's widely known as "Mr Potato Head."

Could Dutton really be Australia's next Prime Minister? If he pulled it off, it would just be the next step in a meteoric rise to power that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense—a rise that's made a lot of people question whether Dutton has just been in the right place at the right time, or if he's something of a political genius.

Bradburying

In 2002, Steven Bradbury was a 29-year-old Australian speed skater past his prime. Heading into his fourth Olympics, nobody expected him to get a medal, let alone take the gold. But Bradbury did exactly that, skating to victory from last place after his fellow racers crashed into one another. Not just once, but twice—first in the semi finals, and then to claim first place in the final.

That image of Bradbury in the final—arms raised, face in total disbelief as he crossed the finishing line—became iconic. He even went on to star in a series of paint brush commercials (the height of success for any Australian sportsperson) winking to the camera as he uttered the tag line: "It's how you finish that counts."

Picture Dutton, dodging the carnage of his fellow conservatives, whose careers have hit rock bottom with the force of a speed skater hitting the ice. Barnaby Joyce, Cory Bernardi, Eric Abetz. For progressives, it's a nightmarish vision. But it's definitely not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, it may have been his plan all along.

Luck Versus Strategy

Here's a Steven Bradbury fun fact for all you fans out there: Hoping every other skater would fall over was actually his only game plan from the start. According to Australia's official Olympic historian (apparently an actual job), Bradbury knew he couldn't skate faster than his younger competitors, and so decided with his coach that he'd hang back and bank on them crashing.

Was Bradbury a genius or was he just really lucky?

The same question applies to Dutton. He's managed to rise from a Queensland cop to a member of the federal cabinet. Malcolm Turnbull literally created a new mega department for him to oversee—combining the immigration department, Border Force, the AFP, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC, and the Office of Transport Safety under the banner of "Home Affairs" just to keep him happy. Clearly, Dutton is a force in Australian politics.

There's a version of this career trajectory where Dutton is a political genius, biding his time while everyone else falls over. Where every gaffe—from accidentally texting journalist Samantha Maiden that she was a "mad f**king witch" instead of his advisor, to getting caught on a hot mic joking about rising sea levels in the Pacific, to causing an diplomatic crisis over his claims white farmers are being persecuted in South Africa—is a calculated move.

There's also a version where he's totally hapless, just riding the wave of Malcolm Turnbull's desperate attempts to keep peace with the conservative side of his party amidst Tony Abbott's constant barbs from the back bench.

No matter which one is the reality, one thing is clear: Peter Dutton is a politician with a particularly low centre of gravity. Gaffes that would trip up most public figures just don't affect him, he just keeps going, plodding along, undeterred.

Does Anyone Actually Like Peter Dutton?

You can trawl through media coverage of Peter Dutton for literally hours and still be hard pressed to find a glowing word about him. "He comes across as surly at best, and often angry," Bernard Keane wrote. "He has no charisma."

"His performance on television is often so wooden that you can almost hear his media advisers' sighs of despair," Fairfax's Jane Cadzow said. "Under studio lights, his smooth visage can appear not just bland but blank. It is an indication of his level of charisma that his nickname in the corridors of power is Mr Potato Head."

"It’s said I’m not charismatic either," conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen wrote, imagining how Dutton's victory speech might read if he were to win the Liberal leadership. "Oh well, I’m not here to win a personality contest. Some say I’m not exciting, a bit dull in fact."

Of his time as health minister: "Dutton will be remembered as the dullest, least innovative and most gullible [health minister]," Tasmanian GP Dr Donald Rose said, writing to Australian Doctor, which ranked the former cop as Australia's worst health minister in 35 years.

Indigenous Australians won't soon forget the time he boycotted the apology to the Stolen Generation, only to support a similar apology to the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants—some 500,000 (mostly white) children put into out-of-home care in Australia during the 20th century and subjected to horrifying abuse.

But it's as head of Home Affairs, and Immigration before that, where Dutton has made his real enemies. According to Roy Morgan Research, the public overwhelming thinks Australia's offshore detention plan is "cruel." The UN has repeatedly said the same thing. In less than a week, lobby group GetUp! was able to crowdfund $200,000 to try and unseat Dutton in his Queensland electorate of Dickson.

As is his way though, Dutton has never been deterred by any of this criticism.

The media who raised their eyebrows at his "white farmer" comments? "They're dead to me," Dutton said, pointing to the ABC and The Guardian in particular.

GetUp!'s attempts to unseat him? “Anyone donating a dollar to GetUp should know they are nothing more than a front for the Labor Party, the Greens, and their other big benefactor—the CFMEU," he said at the time. "I’ve held the seat for 16 years against every left-wing campaign and I’ll defeat the left-wing GetUp union campaign at the time of the next election."

Prime Minister Dutton

Looking at the odds, the chances of Peter Dutton becoming Australia's next prime minister are pretty slim. According to betting markets, which can be a fairly good predictor of elections under the right conditions, Malcolm Turnbull will likely hold onto his job until the next federal election. He will probably lose and step down, the odds say, clearing a path for Julie Bishop.

It would be a huge surprise if Bishop actually tried to take Turnbull's job before that. Her brand is all about being a "competent centrist," so triggering party disunity could seriously backfire. Tony Abbott doesn't really have the votes to win a leadership spill, neither does Scott Morrison.

And that leaves Dutton, skating along behind, waiting to make his move. It's a long shot, but he's probably still got better odds than Steven Bradbury had to win that gold. For his part, the Home Affairs minister is hedging his bets. "Down the track I am sure if an opportunity presented itself," he said, when 7.30 asked if he'd want the top job, "but not while Malcolm Turnbull is the Prime Minister."

Follow Maddison on Twitter