Albanese’s strategy of targeting Dutton is backfiring badly
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The prime minister’s front bench has been scrambling since November 8 to deliver a coherent response to the High Court’s momentous decision to overturn the 2004 Al Kateb decision and rule indefinite detention illegal.
But even as Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil has sought opposition support for a second set of laws to deal with the fallout from the court’s ruling, she has also risked that backing by overcooked accusations that the opposition leader protected paedophiles over children.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during question time at Parliament House on Wednesday.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
This, she and other Labor MPs claimed in the house and in interviews, was because the opposition blocked an amendment on Monday seeking to ban child sex offenders from going anywhere near schools. The Coalition argued the amendment did not go far enough.
The claim against Dutton, a Queensland cop who worked in the sex crimes squad in his previous career, is plainly overblown. During a fiery question time on Thursday, Labor’s Speaker Milton Dick wouldn’t accept the comment from O’Neil and forced her to withdraw.
Dutton regularly refers to his police career, and in an appearance on ABC TV’s Kitchen Cabinet earlier this year, he hinted at the impact tackling sex-offence work had had on him and how it had shaped his attitude to law and justice.
“It jars and I think it scars as well,” Dutton told interviewer Annabelle Crabb, remembering his work with rape victims.
By Friday morning, Dutton was on Nine’s Today show reserving his right to sue if O’Neil and fellow minister Anika Wells do not apologise for their claims.
Shortly after, in an awkward interview with Neil Mitchell on 3AW, Albanese was distancing himself from his ministers’ remarks but repeatedly refused to make them say sorry.
The substantive issue of the policy response to the High Court ruling had been superseded by a debate about ad hominem attacks on Dutton.
Labor’s political strategy to damage Dutton backfired.
Much like the Gillard government’s constant attacks on former opposition leader Tony Abbott, the Albanese edition is determined to frame Dutton as a negative opposition leader who says no to everything and belongs on the far-right fringe.
There is no question that Dutton is the preeminent figure in the Coalition’s conservative faction and a national security hawk, demonstrated by his time in the Immigration, Home Affairs and Defence portfolios. It’s a persona he revels in.
But the Labor government would do well to remember that after weathering three years of character assassination, Abbott won a landslide victory that brought the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years to an end.
The High Court’s decision led to the release of 142 people into the community, some of whom have committed serious crimes like rape and murder, because the court ruled indefinite detention was illegal.
The Albanese government looked flat-footed in response, belatedly rushing through supervision laws that included every amendment the opposition wanted. It began this week promising to pass further laws to protect the community and ends it still working through the details, while throwing a lot of mud at Dutton and the opposition.
Labor’s focus groups may be telling them that Dutton is perceived as a negative politician and a wrecker. But the path to victory for the ALP is not through the character assassination of its opponent.
Much as Australians worked out that Scott Morrison was a bulldozer well before Morrison said it, so too will they judge Dutton by his actions, not Labor’s words, and make up their own minds about the opposition leader.
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