He’s back. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, Crikey’s Clown of the Week, had a relatively quiet 2020, only occasionally bobbing to the surface to remind us of his staggering callousness, his contempt for democratic institutions, the incredible power he wields and his desire to constantly expand it.
This week, he reminded us all over again, somehow managing to distinguish himself during possibly the grubbiest and most dispiriting periods of the perpetually grubby and dispiriting Scott Morrison government.
Dutton is the latest in a long list of ministers and staffers who knew about the allegations of the rape of staffer Brittany Higgins without apparently feeling it was worth bringing to the prime minister’s notice.
The Australian Federal Police, under the obligation of “sensitive information” guidelines, had tipped him off on February 11, days after Higgins told them she was considering reopening the investigation into the incident. Why the AFP is obliged to tell the home affairs minister about any politically sensitive information it finds out is another question.
He then described the alleged rape as “she said, he said”. As Rachel Withers put it in The Monthly, while the allegations could scarcely have been handled worse, no one else in this whole sorry episode had thrown out that phrase, or anything like it. Apart from being a textbook example of the kind of dismissive, equivocal language that dissuades many victims from coming forward, one wonders what other serious crime could be committed in the halls of parliament which would illicit such an insouciant shrug from the “tough on crime” hard man.
Dutton has responded to the controversy with typical self reflection by saying arrests of rapists in his time as a policeman were “amongst his proudest achievements”, and threatening to sue Greens Senator Larissa Waters for calling him a “rape apologist”.
But it’s more than that. Earlier this month it was revealed that Dutton had slashed millions from recommended recipients of a community safety program and handed them to his own pet projects (including in a highly marginal seat leading up to a by-election and to a liberal donor). It should have been a scandal. It passed almost unnoticed.
As has always been the case, no matter the ongoing chaos, incompetence and unaccountability of his department, no matter the displays of willful ignorance on basic political matters, no matter the use of the office as a place to settle private scores or do favours for friends and supporters, Dutton’s influence remains seemingly undiminished.
However low the standards of politics may feel, Dutton has a supernatural ability to go lower. Given the standards of our era, that is quite an achievement.