Immigration hardliner Peter Dutton is pushing to be Australia’s 30th Prime Minister, the country’s sixth in just over 10 years, as a conservative leadership coup against current leader Malcolm Turnbull gains momentum.
A rift in the ruling Liberal Party over Turnbull’s climate change policy, known as the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), led to a challenge for the party’s leadership on Monday morning.
Dutton, 47, a leader in the party’s conservative faction, only narrowly lost a leadership contest against Turnbull and is now seeking to mount another attempt, following the resignation of three high-profile Australian ministers, including Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.
On Thursday, Dutton tweeted he had spoken with Turnbull, “to advise him I believed the majority of the party room no longer supported his leadership. Accordingly, I asked him to convene a party room meeting at which I would challenge for the leadership of the Parliamentary Liberal Party.”
A veteran politician and former Queensland policeman who joined the Australian Parliament aged just 31, Dutton has made a name for himself in recent years as the country’s immigration minister, overseeing Australia’s strict border protection regime.
But the staunch conservative has also proved to be something of a controversial figure in Australian politics, following disparaging comments about immigrants.
A poll in early August found just 7% of voters from his own ruling Liberal Party wanted Dutton to be their leader, behind Prime Minister Turnbull on 51%.
However, as of Monday, almost a dozen ministers had offered their resignations to Turnbull, and with just eight votes standing between him and the most powerful job in Australia, Dutton’s bid to become prime minister could soon become a reality.
Speaking to CNN, former Liberal Party leader John Hewson issued a note of caution, saying Dutton wasn’t a “natural leader” and his likely policy agenda might be too extreme for average Australians.
There are even questions over whether or not Dutton is eligible to sit in Parliament, over local media reports his family’s childcare businesses may be receiving money from the government in breach of constitutional rules.
“If Peter Dutton is the answer, what the hell’s the question?” Hewson said.
The ruling Liberal Party is primarily split between two ideological factions – a moderate, pro-business grouping led by Turnbull and a large conservative faction, partially led by Dutton.
The differences between the two groups have widened in recent years, especially over immigration and climate change policy.
“(The conservatives) have a very strong ideological position and have never been convinced Malcolm Turnbull ought to be Liberal PM. They don’t accept his credentials,” John Warhurst, emeritus professor of Australian Politics at the Australian National University, told CNN.
The deep divisions between the two groups exploded when Turnbull tried to legislate action on climate change in line with the Paris Agreement, which many in the conservative faction want to dump altogether.
The party’s right wing is now looking to install a leader from within their own faction, with Dutton emerging as the clear front runner.
A leading light of Australia’s conservative movement, Dutton repeatedly opposed same-sex marriage prior to its legalization in Australia in 2017, and was one of the architects of a divisive national vote designed to stall the issue.
He was also one of a small number of politicians who boycotted then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008 to the Stolen Generations, a name given to the tens of thousands of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents and families by the government between 1910 and 1970.
If the former immigration minister takes power in coming weeks, Australia’s government is likely to move further to the right on migration, climate change and social issues ahead of a national election, due to be held by May 2019 at the latest.
But Hewson said he didn’t believe that a “hard line right” policy platform, similar to that of US President Donald Trump, could be successful in Australia. “If you give up the center ground, you’ll make it truly hard to win an election,” he said.
Changes to immigration?
Australia has long considered itself a successful multicultural, immigrant nation, with almost one in four of the country’s population in 2017 originally born overseas.
But as the country’s immigration minister since 2014, Dutton has been a longtime advocate for lower immigration and harsher tests on potential migrants to Australia.
Speaking to Sky News following his narrow loss in Monday’s leadership ballot, Dutton reiterated his previous statements that immigration numbers needed to be cut.
“It’s clear the Australian public particularly in capital cities … have a view that the migration number is too high, people sitting in congested traffic each day when they go to work or go and pick the kids up,” he said
In 2016, he complained to Sky News about immigrants who “won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English,” adding they would be taking Australian jobs.
At the same time as he has voiced concern over immigration numbers, Dutton sparked controversy by suggesting a special visa category could be created to allow white South African farmers, allegedly persecuted in their home country, to come to Australia as refugees.
“I do think on the information I’ve seen people do need help and they need help from a civilized country,” Dutton told Australian newspaper the Daily Telegraph on March 14.
Speaking to CNN at the time, South African farmers groups denied there was a need for a special refugee visa at this stage.
Climate change action unlikely
In early 2015 Dutton was picked up on an overhead microphone speaking to then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott about a recent trip to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
Abbott said he was sorry he was late, he was still running on “Cape York time” to which Dutton responded, “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your doors,” he said, joking about the effects of climate change.
Dutton apologized for the joke but the conservative politician is likely to take a dim view of any action on climate change.
The Liberal Party’s conservative faction is very hostile towards the Paris Agreement, with many calling for it to be ditched, and instead advocating for greater coal power in Australia.
Following his loss to Turnbull on Friday, Dutton said he wanted to lower energy prices for Australian families, and called for a national inquiry into how expensive electricity bills had become.
“Australian consumers for way too long have been paying way too much for fuel and for electricity,” he told local radio station Triple M.
Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor at Griffith University’s School of Science, told CNN that action on climate change under a potential Dutton government was highly unlikely, given the objections to Turnbull’s “inadequate” policy.
“It’s clear the faction won’t take any serious action to slow down climate change, they will argue the government’s duty is to have a secure energy supply at as low cost as possible, and they will say that means keeping old, dirty coal fired power stations open as long as possible,” he said.