English overboard: Dutton ditches the dog whistle and barks instead
Updated about 2 hours ago
Peter Dutton's statement on asylum seekers was, in its way, a work of art. Critics may yet come to consider this latest gust of enthusiasm the Minister's best work yet, writes Neil McMahon.
"They won't be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, there's no question about that. For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it so there would be huge cost and there's no sense in sugar-coating that, that's the scenario."
Like a mountaineer opting to climb the final stage of Everest in thongs, he first boldly threw aside an Australian leader's favourite tool of trade - dog whistle be gone; no need for it once you have mastered the art of actually barking. And then he gave us what might be called the "English Overboard" affair of the 2016 campaign, a neat bookend to the kiddies-in-the-drink spectacular that so distinguished the 2001 showdown - the very election at which Dutton first presented his chiselled features and chosen fancies to voters.
Dutton's statement on asylum seekers was, in its way a work of art - and a particularly Queensland work of art at that. Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen himself would've been proud to have produced this collision of words and sentences, tumbling forth and governed only by the rule that each sentence was to make a swift nonsense of the sentence immediately preceding it.
And what a joy it is to behold - a minister holding forth on questions of literacy with the grammatical flair of an autocorrected drunk text.
In the space of three sentences, refugees were painted as the cleverest bunch of illiterate yet industrious job-hogging layabout if completely hypothetical invaders the Australian people had ever been invited to collectively clutch their pearls over.
(For good measure on the literacy front, Dutton questioned whether these folk would be "numerate ... in English", which doesn't add up at all. Counting is counting, Minister, and knows no tongue - eight weeks, to pick a random example, will always be eight endless, painful weeks, no matter the language in which we might grimly tally the toll. The words we use for counting - one, two, three - you following, Minister? - they would be a matter of literacy.)
Moving on and back to the fearmongering at hand. Despite, or perhaps because of, his blithe defiance of the need to make any sense, Dutton almost got away with it. Actually, he did get away with it on Sky News when he first said it, and make of that what you will. But not long after his warnings hit the outside world it became clear the Minister was actually stranded and left straddling in the most painful of positions.
Sir Joh himself could have warned him to take care - in a famous missive with almost eerie pertinence to Dutton's current role, the master of the Queensland word salad once advised:
You can't sit on a fence, a barbed wire fence at that, and have one ear to the ground.
Indeed you cannot, and nor should you try to dance on one, as Dutton is learning after his frolic along the wire last night. Not that he is one to be deterred easily.
He is, after all, a one-time northern copper, a determined bunch. Not for nothing was the young Dutton, aged just over 30, sent in on the frontline of that 2001 election.
Like many of his Queensland brethren - Sir Joh actually looked like a peanut, Peter Beattie like a plump tomato, Campbell Newman an overripe asparagus - Dutton came blessed with a certain farm-fresh visage. In his case, it was like a Brussels sprout had been cross-bred with Donny Osmond - and it was from those formidable teeth that one deduced he meant business.
And so it has proven, though taking care of business has made him perhaps even more prone than others to the pitfalls of public focus. His most famous how-to-wreck-a-photo-op moment came when a hovering microphone caught him cracking wise about rising sea levels swamping our Pacific neighbours. Prior to last night, this was his most notable contribution to comedy folklore, alongside his aborted stand-up experiment with Operation Border Force at Flinders Street station.
But critics may come to consider this latest gust of enthusiasm the Minister's best work yet, coming as it does a precise 100 days before the 15th anniversary of the Tampa crisis - the event that sealed the 2001 election result for John Howard, and therefore Dutton's political career.
A mere 17 days after Tampa came 9/11, and two months after that, polling day. Within those weeks lies the origin story for the politics of today - right up to that Dutton interview last night. Only the dog whistle was missing.
But he's always shown signs he didn't much see the need of it when you could just say things right out loud. In his maiden speech, this much was clear. He spoke of crime "causing older Australians to barricade themselves in their homes"; of "the boisterous minority and the politically correct" with their outsized influence; of the "silent majority ... fed up with bodies like the ... Refugee Action Collective".
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Neil McMahon is a freelance writer.
First posted about 2 hours ago