Image credit: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Two Fridays ago, Peter Dutton woke up thinking he’d become prime minister that day. So convinced were Dutton and his camp that they had it in the bag that his numbers men went out for dinner the night before the likely spill; the only hurdle, they thought, was getting enough signatories for the party room meeting petition. Turns out they should have stayed at the office working the phones, like Scott Morrison did. They might have found the three votes to stop Morrison winning 45-40.

Expecting to win, Dutton had flown his family down from Queensland. After the defeat, the Duttons went out for lunch, where they were photographed. Politics is a cruel, cruel business, and while many readers will laugh off the idea, it’s hard not to feel for anyone put through that emotional wringer, even if by their own ambition.

As it turns out, the process appears to have affected Dutton more than it first appeared. Joe Hockey went into a funk for months after narrowly missing the Liberal leadership in 2009 — crueled, he believed, by Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to run, which prevented him from beating Tony Abbott. Dutton isn’t in a funk. He’s in a towering rage, not just about losing, but about the relentless attacks on him, his use of ministerial discretion in the interests of the connected and the influential and, yesterday, by allegations he’d helped some mates with jobs.

[What is ‘parliamentary privilege’ and can I use it to slag off my enemies?]

That culminated in an extraordinary moment when Dutton lashed out in parliament at the man whom he believes is his chief tormentor, former Australian Border Force head Roman Quaedvlieg, claiming the latter “groomed a girl 30 years younger”. Grooming, of course, is a verb very explicitly linked, including in legislation, to paedophilia. Presumably Dutton is referring not to a “girl” but a woman in her ’20s with whom Quaedvlieg was linked in relation to the matter that ended his leadership of ABF. If Dutton has some sort of moral issue with middle-aged men having relationships with much younger women, you’d assume he would start with a slightly more high-profile case involving someone who sits down the other end of the chamber from him on his own side. But that doesn’t explain why he chose to use a smear word like “groom”, except that he knew he could get away with it behind parliamentary privilege.

Liberal-National Party politicians have some form here. George Brandis used the Senate to smear Julia Gillard as a “crook” and never had the guts to repeat it outside parliament, or the decency to produce any evidence. But Dutton has gone much further, in a way that suggests his judgement is now badly impaired. Whether it’s the pressure of being targeted on so many fronts, or his fury of being robbed of a prime ministership he believed was his, Peter Dutton needs some time off to reflect not merely on his hysterical overreaction to Quaedvlieg, but whether recent events suggest his political talents are quite as great as he believes they are. Presumably, if he retains his seat, Dutton will want to be a contender for the leadership after the next election. On current form, his colleagues — or however many of them survive — will be thinking of looking elsewhere.

Where do you think Peter Dutton should go on holiday? Write to [email protected].

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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