“You dirty lefties are too easy,” Peter Dutton said in 2011. Turns out, he was probably correct.

What drove Dutton’s remarks about illiterate refugees stealing Australian jobs and more recently about Lebanese immigrants of the 1970s isn’t clear. Dutton is probably no more or less bigoted and ignorant than any other former Queensland policeman. But he’s cleverer than many have given him credit for.

This week, the process played out in miniature exactly, one suspects, as Dutton had hoped. A group of earnest young progressives invaded Parliament to protest about the treatment refugees on Manus Island and Nauru; they chanted (to the point where they themselves grew visibly bored), wielded superglue, abseiled and mounted signs. Parliament — where security agencies were already demanding yet more, extraordinarily expensive, security theatre to keep people out and keep those in better controlled — promptly decided to upgrade security. Right-wing commentators and politicians complained that the left was always trying to shut down democracy (readily ignoring similar far-right efforts); others argued whether free speech extended to being able to interrupt Parliament, a view that, as so often happens with free speech discussions, seemed mainly to revolve around whether you agreed with the protesters. Free speech always has lots of willing defenders among the ranks of those who agree with you.

[Protesters hijack Parliament’s last days]

Regardless of what issues forth from the mouth of Dutton or the drones of the Immigration Department, the open-air rape and child abuse camp Australia runs on Nauru is a matter of official policy — wilful neglect at the creation of such a hellhole is intended to be a deterrent to anyone considering coming by boat, as is the indifference to basic medical needs of detainees, which has led to deaths. People are right to be angry about what is being done by Australia. But Dutton is only too happy to provoke such protests, because like his comments demonising refugees or immigrants, they send the signal he wants to voters. He is engaged in an inverted form of virtue signalling, the practice of offering meaningless endorsement of progressive views (usually on social media) aimed primarily at demonstrating one’s enlightened status to one’s like-minded peers. But his version is to signal the opposite: Dutton is viciousness-signalling.

As we’ve long seen, there is a substantial proportion of the electorate that seems to think that no matter what we do to refugees, it’s not tough enough — at the moment it’s around 30% of voters. They tend to be Coalition voters more often than Labor voters, but “other” voters are particularly hardline in their view — more than 40% of “other” voters think rape, child abuse, murder, sexual harassment and medical inattention aren’t enough. Dutton knows that complaints about the camps and the abuses that occur there play to this sentiment, and any protests that draw attention to them will be to his advantage with such voters — perhaps luring them to the Coalition fold from groups like One Nation.

The same thing applies to his comments about those illiterate refugees who take local jobs, and his attacks on Lebanese Australians. It’s viciousness signalling — a broadcast to voters (“other”, Coalition, Labor and even some Greens) about his scepticism about immigration generally. That they draw condemnation in the media and from his political opponents is all to the better — they serve to amplify them and boost Dutton’s own profile. He even used Labor’s criticism of his vilification of Lebanese Australians to portray himself as a truth teller being bullied by the forces of political correctness and the “real racists” of the left.

[Did Dutton’s anti-Muslim spray breach section 18C?]

That status as victim, of course, is crucial not merely to the tactics of the right but even, one suspects, to their very identity, no matter how absurd. The angry white male that is now the political force of the moment sees himself as a victim, betrayed by elites, bullied by progressives, silenced by some sinister PC police — and all for daring to speak the truth that girls/wogs/Abos/poofs/towelheads are repressing him. That Peter Dutton — Minister for Immigration and possessed of extraordinary and increasingly unreviewable discretionary powers that nearly amount to life and death for refugees and immigrants — could somehow be bullied by anyone is laughable, but the more absurd the belief in victimhood, the more currency it seems to have.

All of this works well for Dutton, who sees a right-wing collection of angry conservatives as ripe for political exploitation. Cory Bernardi has been doing this sort of thing more subtly for years, and Tony Abbott rode to power (however briefly) on a softcore version of it, but Dutton has trumped — pun intended — both of them in openly attacking his own party’s immigration legacy and pedaling the crassest of stereotypes about his targets.

The question for “dirty lefties” thus becomes — how do you respond? Do you become part of the anger machine that serves Dutton’s purposes, or do you find another way to answer?

Peter Fray

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