Darling of Australia’s right goes AWOL amid election battle

Published May 11, 2019, 11:33 AM

by Francine Ciasico

By Agence France-Presse 

Australia’s conservatives control the ruling Liberal Party and occupy key positions in government, but a week out from tight elections their talisman has gone into hiding and the movement is on the back foot.

Australia's home affairs minister Peter Dutton has faced questions over his intervention in the immigration case of two European au pairs (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
Australia’s home affairs minister Peter Dutton (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Unsmiling, uncompromising and polarizing, 48-year-old former policeman and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was front and center of Australian politics, until now.

Amid a closely fought election battle that the opposition Labor Party is on track to win, Dutton — the darling of hard-right Liberals — has all but disappeared from the national view and is fighting to save his seat in parliament.

It is just one sign of how difficult the terrain has become for Australia’s mainstream conservatives, stuck between moderates moving to the left and a globally inspired populist movement.

For much of the last year, Dutton’s faction in the ruling Liberal-National coalition had been in the ascendancy.

Buoyed by the success of politicians like Donald Trump they ousted moderate prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a party coup, tightened their grip on immigration policy and took control of Australia’s domestic spy agency.

Dutton had carried himself with a swagger, unflinchingly espousing strident views and defending Australia’s policies of sending asylum seekers to remote Pacific camps.

He boycotted a national apology to indigenous children taken from their families, joked with climate-hit Pacific Islanders about “water lapping at your door”, and told business leaders to “stick to their knitting” when they supported same-sex marriage.

All of this made him a hero to conservatives, who narrowly missed out on making him Liberal leader and prime minister.

Former PM and Liberal heavyweight John Howard recently praised Dutton as a genuine and hardworking politician whose “strong values and resolve” as Home Affairs Minister has “kept all Australians safer”.

Ahead of the 2019 election, Dutton had been expected to lead the charge as the Liberal-Nationals, who are one party in his home state of Queensland, try to win back votes lost to the anti-immigration One Nation party.

But with the Liberals also trying to court moderate voters in the more progressive southern state of Victoria amid fears of a landslide loss there, Dutton — a lightning rod for left-wing anger — has taken a back seat, mostly shunning the media spotlight.