For much of the past 12 months, the press gallery has agreed that the power of Peter Dutton has grown within the government, possibly to the point where he could challenge Turnbull for the Liberal leadership and hence become Prime Minister. It's time to call bullshit on that, and to point out that the more enthusiastic advocates for Dutton (or those most hungry for stink) aren't helping us understand how the government works. Dutton solves none of the problems facing the country. Think about the big issues (go on, dare to do so despite our appalling national leadership and inadequate media):
- Maintaining stable electrical power supplies (and gas for that matter) in the face of changing technologies - that is, to take on the political risk that all state governments but WA and Queensland have shirked;
- An economy that creates jobs within a sustainable environment;
- A relationship with Indigenous people that goes beyond the tokenistic, but which does not negate non-Indigenous Australia to the extent we tried to negate them;
- The ability to encourage people to come to our country, as visitors and migrants, but not to the point where we fear the loss of who we are (see above); and
- [insert your big issue here].
Dutton offers answers to none of these questions.Dutton offers no answers to questions of good government, he has fucked up every portfolio he's held (including the current one, see below). He offers no political answers either: he's not more popular than Turnbull, and any regional variations in relative popularity for one is offset elsewhere. The proof of this is in the Queensland election. Had Dutton been a political go-getter, if he had half the ambition of Howard or Abbott or Turnbull or even Sam Dastyari, Dutton would have been at the side of every LNP candidate in every winnable seat up and down the state. Were he a potent political threat Palaszczuk should be cursing him by name, piling on to the outrage about Manus, but she rightly regards him as irrelevant. Maybe he's raised heaps of money for the LNP behind the scenes, but I doubt it. Turnbull's main political weakness is his lack of judgment: when to push open a door ajar, and when to walk by it. Dutton has the same weakness. He was right not to throw himself into the 2015 Queensland election, when Campbell Newman threw away one of the biggest majorities ever, and at the next Queensland election it will be too late. Dutton is too stupid to know Manus has reached its endgame. As a junior policeman he was removed from situations requiring subtlety and deftness, but as a senior politician he has been let loose by a weak leadership and goaded by right-wingers thirsty for some impact (yes, the government of Australia is less well run than the Queensland Police). All cruelty requires prizing toughness over all other considerations, and Dutton has shielded himself from those considerations for too long.UN and non-government agencies have long criticised Australia's mandatory detention system, and so have journalists from outside the press gallery (recent converts to the idea that the system is appallingly inhumane, like Paul Bongiorno and Michael Gordon, do not count). Dutton assumes that recent criticism, accompanied by video, is more of the same and can either be ignored or fed into culture wars. When a boatload of asylum-seekers foundered on the rocks at Christmas Island in 2012, with accompanying video, Australians were appalled. The out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to offshore detention was exposed. So too was the nation's entire political class, which were heavily invested in "strong on border security" and could not easily or deftly change course. Michael Keenan and Joe Hockey shed tears of self-pity and the sheer impossibility of changing course: and so too did the press gallery, which from then until now took the Coalition at its word on these matters. The solution then largely consisted of media management: restricting access to Christmas Island, redefining what a "boat arrival" meant, harsh words to dwindling media proprietors and threats of outsiderdom to press gallery insiders. The press gallery responded to this not with defiance, as journalists might, but by insisting then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was a genius for his ability to bamboozle the press gallery. Morrison is less effective in bamboozling economists outside the press gallery in his current role, but that respect has transferred to Dutton for his continuation and expansion of limits of media access to content sources beyond official statements.Now we know that official statements are in disgrace, and bear no relation to reality: moving people from one settlement to another violently, cutting off water and medical aid, and doing it all in a media environment that can't be controlled exposes Manus to its Australian sponsors. NZ's offer to take some refugees, denied again, makes it look as though the government doesn't want the problem solved, or is so obstinate that it overlooks obvious solutions (a common feature of all governments nearing their end). The double game of Australia taking credit but blaming the locals is over: all the gallery's faithful stenography to that end was always wasted, but is now irrelevant. Dutton has batted away politically-correct lefties before, and is doing so again, not realising it's too late for that. The combination of images from Manus going global, combined with the policy being shunned by all but the farthest right (even Trump blanched at it: "you're worse than I am"); along with a reputation for ripping off backpackers, and now being lumped in with human rights abuses in Myanmar in terms of callousness to asylum-seekers, it's too late for cosy chats with Ray Hadley trying to discourage listeners from believing their lying eyes. With Trump's US and Brexit UK shunning clever and ambitious migrants, we see now that there is no plan for Australia to offer an attractive destination. We see nothing for tourism and education beyond the lazy assumption that more Chinese will ramp up numbers for us. Nobody has any right to assume that the Immigration Minister would even want to play a long game on this front: this government has a vacuous leader, nobody from the press gallery went looking for evidence of long-term national-interest thinking, and the Opposition dares not engage in any product differentiation on this issue. And so, an absurdly inadequate minister is off the hook.Had Labor been re-elected federally in 2010 to a greater extent than it was, it is entirely likely that Dutton's career would have ended then. Dutton's seat, Dickson, between northern Brisbane and the southern Sunshine Coast, is almost entirely represented by Labor in state parliament. Dutton's mate Dan Purdie won a state seat, but so what? The LNP machine is not exactly the killer outfit it was five years ago, and whatever the answers might be to the LNP's malaise almost none reside in that potato head of his. Contrast that with the way John Howard rebuilt the Liberal Party from the ground up in 1995-96.When skittish politicians get worried about an unpopular leader, they try to imagine that leader in their local community shaking hands with local worthies and randoms. This is the political equivalent of picturing what your house looks like from the kerb; nobody pretends it's all-important but it isn't unimportant either. Those who were unimpressed with John Howard underestimated his ability to walk among ordinary people, chat with them and appear to be listening; those who love the guy rave about his ability to do that, a quality pretty much absent in your standard political-class drone.It was hard to imagine gimlet-eyed obsessive Abbott in actual communities with actual voters, but he waddled around the country doing passable imitations of political gladhanding. Then, he spent two years returning to Canberra screwing the people whose hands he'd shaken. Liberals found this dissonance puzzling, until Peta Credlin and the passage of time helped them realise Abbott was really like that. As he became both less popular and less effective, it was easy to imagine Turnbull gladhanding the way back to popularity. No Liberal, not even those in safe seats, wants Dutton anywhere near voters who like their local MP but have their doubts. Again, you'll notice he played scant role in Queensland, and he's not doing much heavy lifting in the success story of immigration that is Bennelong.Dutton doesn't look like the stereotype of a Queenslander, like Bob Katter does; Abbott looks more like a copper than he does. For all his aggregation of power over federal intelligence and law enforcement capabilities, Dutton has played no role in shaping public debates in the area. He hasn't brought in much experience from his own experience as a police officer (oddly cut short just before he became eligible for considerable benefits). Maybe the guy just doesn't believe in public debate. Maybe he just isn't a leader to anyone outside the Liberal right. He's probably not the right person to dissuade people from their growing inclination to chuck out the incumbent government. With his bald pate and deadpan features, Dutton looks like a public servant who says no, like a banker foreclosing on busted small businesses. Howard had that look too, but he could do sunny optimism better than Dutton. Dutton goes hard in Question Time, but Labor seem to have his measure after his lacklustre opposition to Nicola Roxon and Catherine King's painstaking work in Health when he was minister (besides, who gives a fuck about Question Time?). He is such a cold fish that this experienced (non-gallery) journalist was moved to tears at a simple display of humanity before some children. He is not a steady hand in an uncertain future. Anyone who thinks leaks and backbench rebellions would cease under a Dutton leadership is kidding themselves. Shorten will look like a model of calm forward thinking in contrast to the darkly foreboding Dutton. If you were a Liberal MP in a marginal seat, or a Liberal candidate in a Labor one, Peter Dutton is lead in your saddlebags. You'd risk chucking Turnbull for someone with more of the common touch, but you'd no more choose Dutton than Kevin Andrews or Peta Credlin. His biggest fans are the people who also insist we can halve new coal-fired power stations and no same-sex marriage. He offers empty threats and petty bullying, maybe not even that. Dutton embodies the Liberal predicament - frustration without resolution - but it is wishful thinking to insist he's got what it takes to fix it.