Culture

Statesman, Scholar, Bowl Of Porridge: A Very Serious History Of The Life And Times Of Peter Dutton

We all know Peter Dutton the Minister, the leader, the visionary. But what about the man? We went behind the scenes.

The Australian public has seen many sides of the Honourable Peter Dutton. We know Peter Dutton the Minister. We know Peter Dutton the statesman. We know Peter Dutton the semi-sentient cardboard box.

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Then-Health Minister Peter Dutton, November 2013.

But do we know Peter Dutton the man? How well are we acquainted with the man who every day carries the heavy burden of protecting our nation’s borders from the myriad menaces that, for all we know, probably threaten it from time to time? How did this little boy from Brisbane grow up into one of the nation’s most powerful men, a man of whom one of the Liberal Party’s most prominent powerbrokers last year said: “Is he smiling, or does he have a urinary tract infection?”

Looking into Dutton’s life and background, I discovered there is far more to the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection than just the staunch defender of the realm and roguish ladies’ man with which we are all familiar.

‘Brisbane Schoolboys Against Refugees’: A Child Of Potential

Peter Craig Dutton was born in Queensland, and after being thoroughly washed and checked for parasites, began his primary school education, a process that continues to this day. A childhood friend recalls that the young Peter was a likeable and gregarious child, devoted to his academic studies, intensely patriotic, and able to stay upright for as long as ten minutes at a time on a clear day.

Even then, Dutton was showing an interest in the issues that would dominate his adult life, playing an active role in the foundation of the Association of Brisbane Schoolboys Against Refugees, and winning a medal in Year Five for his humorous essay on the lighter side of Pacific floods. In his school yearbook, Dutton is honoured as both Most Likely to Achieve Inexplicable Success and Most Likely to Walk Into A Tree. Dutton himself remembers school as “a big house with lots of children in it. I went there in the daytime and a lady shouted at me.”

Although Dutton’s ability to dress himself and face the right way while speaking had many earmarking him for a career in politics, he first entered the Queensland Police, vowing to uphold the values of integrity and justice that made that organisation famous. During his nine years in the police force he developed a passion for the rule of law and an unshakeable belief that he should leave the police force. Of his time as a policeman, Dutton reminisces, “I had a gun and I shot it and it was loud.”

And so Peter Dutton entered the political world with three huge assets: a distinguished career in public service; a Bachelor of Business from the Queensland University of Technology; and a common touch that enabled him to understand the concerns of the everyday, average, hard-working mums and dads in the street of middle Australia. The Minister says his decision to become a politician was motivated by a powerful desire to ease the burden on these ordinary battlers: in his first speech to the House of Representatives he memorably declared his solidarity with the working class with the words: “Where is the toilet?”

Today he looks back on his early days in parliament with genial good humour. “I was so young,” he chuckles. “I was this many”, and holds up six fingers. But if he was not quite the finished product as an MP, Dutton even in the beginning was working tirelessly for what he believed in. Although many others cravenly submitted to Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, Dutton, whose parents had instilled in him the steely belief that apologies were for sissies, refused to cave in to the malign forces of decency.

Asked about this principled stand, Dutton is defiant, stating fiercely, “It wasn’t me that did it, it was another boy.”

“Doctors Make Us Better When We’re Sick”: Australia’s Most Memorable Health Minister

But like anyone, Dutton had dreams. His childhood friend remembers that the young Peter was always talking of his higher ambitions: “Peter was always gazing into the distance, swearing that if it was the last thing he did, he would one day become one of history’s most unsuccessful Health Ministers”. Some might have scoffed at the boy’s lofty aspirations, but they were laughing on the other side of their faces when Dutton took the reins as Health Minister in the Abbott government and introduced the GP co-payment, a policy so innovative and forward-thinking that to this day Liberal Party MPs tell their children stories about it to scare them into obedience.

Dutton remains proud of his achievements as Health Minister. “Doctors,” he says earnestly, “make us better when we’re sick,” as usual cutting to the heart of the matter in the succinct and direct way that earned him a spot in The Monthly’s list of the Top Eight Thousand Public Speakers of 2014.

But a restless and expansive talent such as Peter Dutton’s couldn’t possibly be content with simply doing nothing in the medical sector. When he was appointed Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, he had big shoes to fill, replacing the highly-esteemed Scott “Facebiter” Morrison. But Dutton has always loved a challenge – and has never been short of one – and he’s taken to the role with gusto. A fellow Cabinet member notes that “to Peter, the security of Australia’s borders is absolutely non-negotiable, and he has promised that he will keep this country safe, no matter how many Senators he has to spy on or rape victims he has to ignore or phones he has to not know how to operate.”

It is, in a way, awe-inspiring to see a man so immovable by the ephemeral breezes of public opinion, postmodern cultural relativism, or faddish human emotions. There are those, it’s true, who would like Dutton to be more flexible in his ministerial duties, but as a spokeswoman for his office says, “What would happen if we reversed government policy every time it was proven that we were complicit in the nightmarish abuse, torture and deaths of our fellow human beings? We’d never get anything done.” And as the Minister himself says, “The bad people have to go to the island because they are dirty.”

In any case, those who carp and criticise are those who do not understand where the Honourable Peter Dutton is coming from. Those who do not understand that boy who used to walk the hot summer streets of Brisbane, knowing there must be a better way to prevent people from foreign countries improving their lives, if only he could discover it. Who do not understand the young man who arrived in Canberra with nothing but a determination to work hard and a note tied around his neck reading, “I am a Member of Parliament, please point me in the right direction”. Who do not understand the ambitious student who once saw his house burned down by a mad witch, and vowed revenge on her and all her kind for as long as he lived.

Because only when you know the man behind the forehead can you see that here is a man who loves his country as much as he loves staring at things with a slightly open mouth, and who knows that when it comes keeping his fellow Australians safe, no unnecessary measure is too stupid.

After all, as the man himself says, “I am a Minister. That is why I have this big desk.”

Ben Pobjie is a writer and comedian with a keen interest in television, politics and gratuitous nudity. He has written three books and read almost twice that many.

Feature image via Peter Dutton/Facebook.