The former home affairs minister has consistently been underestimated throughout his political career
As often as he has been loathed, Peter Dutton has been underestimated.
He was not supposed to win his seat of Dickson in 2001, when he ran against the prominent shadow minister Cheryl Kernot, and with polls showing Labor set for a landslide election win. In the end, few seats changed hands. And Dutton, who won the admiration of John Howard during the campaign, entered parliament.
In Dickson, Dutton inherited a seat with a one-term curse. He has now been the local member, in Brisbane’s outer northern suburbs, for 17 years.
In 2009, when Kevin Rudd was riding high in the polls, Dutton tried unsuccessfully to jump to the Gold Coast seat of McPherson. He went back to Dickson, tail between his legs. But Dutton won in 2010, and even increased his margin.
The son of a Brisbane bricklayer, Dutton worked at his father’s business after leaving school, then joined the Queensland police service, at a time when police were still bedding down reforms demanded by the Fitzgerald inquiry.
As a police officer he worked with the drug squad, the sex offenders’ squad and later the National Crime Authority. These were experiences he relayed in his maiden speech, a fiery introduction that marked him as more likely a political warrior than a statesman.
“I have seen the best and the worst that society has to offer,” Dutton told parliament. “I have seen the wonderful, kind nature of people willing to offer any assistance to those in their worst hour, and I have seen the sickening behaviour displayed by people who, frankly, barely justify their existence in our sometimes over tolerant society.”
He railed about “the boisterous minority and the politically correct”, about groups fighting for civil liberties, refugee advocates and unions.
That tone has persisted through his political career.
When Rudd apologised to the stolen generations in 2007, telling the parliament it was time for the “nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past”, Dutton was not in the chamber. Instead, he joined Wilson Tuckey, Sophie Mirabella and a handful of other MPs who refused to attend.
“I regarded it as something which was not going to deliver tangible outcomes to kids who are being raped and tortured in communities in the 21st century,” he said two years later. “Now, if I thought for a moment that it was going to deliver positive outcomes to those kids, to their families, to those communities, then I would support it in a heartbeat. But I thought it distracted us from that.”
Dutton has more recently said he “didn’t appreciate the symbolism of it, and the importance to Indigenous people”.
Last year, he told chief executives, including Qantas boss Alan Joyce, to stop using shareholders’ money to campaign for marriage equality. He led calls for the resignation of the Human Rights Commission president, Gillian Triggs; he said that “productivity went up” when Fairfax journalists went on strike in 2017; and suggested the country was paying for immigration “mistakes” made under Malcolm Fraser, in reference to the migration of Lebanese Muslims to Australia.
Dutton joked about Pacific island nations having “water lapping at your door”. He called journalist Samantha Maiden a “mad fucking witch” in a text he accidentally sent to her, but was intended for someone else. And he said the “crazy lefties” of the ABC and Guardian Australia were “dead to me”.
Dutton initially served as health minister after Tony Abbott won the 2013 election. Doctors ranked him the worst in living memory.
However it has been as immigration minister, a role later merged with border protection, and then expanded to the super-ministry of home affairs, where Dutton has marked himself as enduringly divisive.
Dutton backed Abbott during the 2015 leadership spill, and he offered the new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, his resignation. Turnbull refused it.
The Queensland MP would become, along with Mathias Cormann, a conservative lynchpin who helped keep the party room from disintegrating around the moderate leader.
The Courier-Mail in his hometown of Brisbane described him in a 2016 profile as the “minister for misery”. Dutton has been the ultimate arbiter of who can come to Australia, and who must leave.
Those decisions have marked him as arguably the country’s most polarising politician. He said white South African farmers were “persecuted” and living in “horrific circumstances” and could be given fast-track Australian visas. But last year his immigration department offered thousands of dollars in resettlement packages to Rohingya refugees on Manus Island, encouraging them to discontinue their asylum applications and return to Myanmar where the government has been accused of ethnic cleansing.
He has fought to prevent sick children in detention from coming to Australia for critical treatment, but used his ministerial intervention powers to save two au pairs from deportation.
As he pointed out on Sky News on Tuesday, as he began his campaign for the prime ministership: “I didn’t put people on Manus and Nauru.” Regardless, as the most recent salesman of the government’s offshore detention policy, Dutton’s unflinching, scowling demeanour has defined him more than anyone before in that position.
GetUp focus groups from last week found people in his own electorate find Dutton “uncompromising”, “hard” and “cruel”.
Dutton has three children and a wife, Kirrily, who runs two childcare centres; the same ones at the centre of debate about his eligibility to sit in Parliament.