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May 20, 2016

Dutton's refugee gambit swings the conversation back to Coalition territory

The beginning of the campaign was all education, healthcare, negative gearing and badly behaved banks. That's Labor territory -- so it took a far-right Abbottista to bring the conversation back to solid Coalition ground, writes former John Howard media adviser Paula Matthewson.


It might have been during the televised “People’s Forum” last week that the penny dropped with Coalition strategists. Almost every question from the self-described unaligned voters was about the issues on which Labor had been campaigning: negative gearing, banks, health and education.

In one respect, this was unsurprising, given the audience was from western Sydney, but the line of questioning placed the PM in a predominantly defensive position. And it left him little room to spruik the benefits of the Coalition’s jobs and growth agenda.

To compound the matter, there were no questions at all on asylum seekers or terrorism, robbing Turnbull of the opportunity to talk about the government’s only other big draw card: national security.

This would have been of some concern to the Turnbull camp. How would voters know that only a Coalition government was capable of protecting them if the PM didn’t get the chance to remind them about this key point of differentiation with Labor?

Clearly, last week’s efforts to amplify the voices of dissent within Labor about offshore detention had not been enough to increase voter concern about the opposition being soft on boats/borders/terrorism. Not according to the latest round of opinion polls, anyway.

So campaign strategists sent the PM to Darwin to hold a disappointingly flag-free press conference in front of an Australian Border Force patrol boat, to accuse Labor MPs and candidates of “crab-walking away” from strong border protection “in the direction of the Greens”.

In case voters missed the point, Turnbull pressed it home, saying the protection of Australia’s borders was a political issue and that “no matter how professional, no matter how capable, courageous and committed the Border Force is, everything depends on strong leadership. Labor cannot deliver that. Shorten cannot deliver that.”

Who knows whether the PM’s not-exactly-subtle intervention would have been enough to get asylum seekers pinging again on voters’ radars?

For who should come bumbling across our scopes but Mr Keystone Cop himself, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Clearly not satisfied with the PM’s effort, or perhaps encouraged by the other Abbott supporters in his “monkey pod” lunch group, Dutton decided to double down on the issue.

Seizing on Labor and the Greens’ election policies to significantly increase Australia’s refugee intake, Dutton decided to hit every potential hot button in the hope of setting off at least one negative response from voters.

While voters consistently say asylum seekers are a low-order issue for them, the matter is not quite so clear-cut. Asylum seekers, refugees and even immigration more broadly can also serve as proxies for issues that are of greater concern to voters such as the economy, housing and yes, job security.

Western Sydney candidate (and now Liberal MP) Fiona Scott exposed (or perhaps exacerbated) this connection in voters’ minds last election, blaming asylum seekers for traffic congestion and hospital queues.

So it is no surprise that Peter Dutton, the man who makes his predecessor, Sledgehammer Morrison, look like a skilled orator, stepped up the election rhetoric on asylum seekers by simultaneously claiming they would languish on our dole queues and take our jobs.

As serendipity would have it, Dutton’s associate in the Abbott fan club, Peta Credlin, chimed in after the Immigration Minister, making similar comments about the economic burden of dramatically increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake.

It was almost as if the Abbott camp decided to take matters into its own hands, wresting the election campaign agenda back on to familiar territory so that the Coalition could regain a dominant position. This approach has been described as a dead-cat strategy, favoured in the past by Coalition strategists.

While it is undoubtedly a Machiavellian interpretation of events to suggest Dutton was encouraged by the Abbottistas to go hard on refugees, it may explain the Prime Minister’s reluctance to denounce Dutton’s behaviour.

Turnbull clearly acquiesced to the border protection hawks within the government when he called Dutton an “outstanding minister” and offered a more genteel version of Dutton’s spray.

On Thursday the PM even invoked our first Repeller of the Asylum Seekers, John Howard, saying part of the foundation of our success as a multicultural society was for Australians to know the government they elect determines “who comes to Australia” rather than “outsourcing” immigration policy to people smugglers, “which is what the Labor Party did”.

However, the PM may have felt he had no other choice. He can hardly be seen to be going soft on asylum seekers/refugees when this is a key point of attack being used against Labor.

What’s more, according one opinion poll at least, a clear majority of voters seem to be on Dutton’s side. Around 60% of respondents to the poll, taken in recent days, agreed that Australia’s immigration intake has been too high and that we should not increase our humanitarian intake because of the refugee crisis in Europe.


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19 thoughts on “Dutton’s refugee gambit swings the conversation back to Coalition territory

  1. Steve777

    Maybe when Turnbull said Dutton was an ‘outstanding’ minister, he mean ‘egregious’.

  2. Jeanette Weir

    Maybe so Steve, but remember Turnbull said that Abbott was a great prime minister. I think from that point on Turnbull became the honourable member for La La Land.

  3. klewso

    Oh for the good old daze of “Children Overboard”?

  4. tonysee

    It’s certainly a great time to be a narrow-minded bigot in Australia.

  5. James O'Neill

    Apart from the dog whistle component of Dutton’s remarks, this whole fake controversy has diverted attention away from the implications of the PNG Supreme Court decision that the holding of the asylum seekers on Manus (and I would argue by extension on Nauru) was illegal. The PNG government has since opened the gates, but that is only a partial solution. According to the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blogsite there have been high level negotiations between the Australian and PNG governments, but we the tax paying public are not told what they are or what they are intended to achieve.
    Ferrovial has said it is no longer offering its security services as they are illegal. Dutton made his customarily ignorant response, but again, the questions that raises are left unaddressed.
    The simple fact is our existing asylum policies are a dog’s breakfast, and both Labor and the Coalition know it. Hence the tacit agreement not to respond, as they should, to the Court’s orders.
    That is simply not good enough. The media, and that includes Crikey, should be demanding answers.

    1. Marilyn J Shepherd

      Australia cannot force refugees to stay in PNG anymore than we can say they can’t go to New Zealand. We don’t own them, they are free people with free rights.

  6. Marilyn J Shepherd

    Do any of the lazy conservative bloviators and racists understand that the refugee convention is law, it’s not some arcane thing to be ignored and it was co-authored and brought into legal force by the conservative Robert Menzies.

    1. Steve777

      Those who understand that don’t care. After all, they’re getting away with it.

  7. Daveo11

    Casting a further negative net around the more progressive media: why do we not see the cost of maintaining Manus and Nauru (including hand-shake foreign aid deals)? Further, knowing the camps cannot continue and it will be costly to dismantle them, surely we voters/taxpayers deserve some perspective re: the current and future costs of the camps vs. flying the bona fide refugees here (and retaining the hateful turn-back policy to keep people smugglers out of business)?

    Both major parties are in deep sludge over refugee/asylum seeker policies. Isn’t it time we are shown some positive look toward the future?

  8. Steve777

    The counter strategy to this type of gambit might be to call it for what it is and get back to what really matters to the voters. Maybe something along the lines of:

    “I see Dutton has thrown a dead cat on the table, this one even smellier than usual. His remarks were profoundly stupid and highly offensive.

    Now about Medicare…”

    1. David Hand

      Poor Steve.
      Boats really matter to voters. That’s why the ALP is in step with the coalition over secure borders even though their inner urban lefty luvvies disagree with it. Their leadership understand that to take any other position guarantees opposition for the next three years.
      Now what were you saying about Medicare? A bigger deficit or something else?

  9. Draco Houston

    It is hard to draw any conclusions from that poll except that a majority want less immigration. The questions on the policies of the 2 major parties doesn’t distinguish between disagreeing because the party is too pro legal migration, too pro refugee, too anti refugee, too anti legal migration, a horribly inhuman omnishambles etc. 1 in 4 don’t have any opinion either way.

    1. Woopwoop

      Well said. Plenty of people are doubtful about heading towards a 50 million population but want to see a much more humane refugee policy.

  10. Suzanne Blake

    Do you think when you analyze this in detail, the real reason the Greens and Labor want more refugees, is to create more voters inclined to vote left when they become Australians?

    1. Steve777

      Now about Medicare…

      1. Rena Zurawel

        What about Medicare? Half of the current Medicare expenses go to administration. We are already being robbed, and its not refugees.

  11. Dog's Breakfast

    Yes Steve. Outstanding is one of those slippery words that a former barrister might use to obfuscate his meaning. Like the teacher who writes on the report card ‘Peter is always trying!’

    Dutton is an outstanding bogan, a quality bigot, a humungous fools.

    As for the rest, the issue conflates immigration and refugees and builds on that confusion in the general public. Our immigration rates are at the highest levels since the post war years, for what social good I cannot find, with no genuine debate about it or discussion about prospective population levels for Australia. Over-population by stealth by the LNP. At the same time they demonise the refugees who make up a small component of the overall immigration intake. There is plenty of room to reduce our business and work immigration (taking Australian jobs!) while increasing our refugee intake and still having much less incoming.

    Just more BS from those masters in the LNP.

  12. Popeye

    Dutton’s refugee gambit? I’d be more inclined to call it a racist rant. But Mathewson’s probably right; the dead cat has probably done the trick in this benighted country.

  13. Nicholas Elliot

    In the funny old land of the Australian
    His borders hold less than his belly can.
    He’ll stuff his gut on
    Shit loads of Button
    But his country’s too small for a Syrian


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