Peter Dutton: The ex-policeman who nearly ousted Australia's PM

Peter Dutton: The ex-policeman who nearly ousted Australia's PM
Peter Dutton: The ex-policeman who nearly ousted Australia's PM
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Image caption Peter Dutton speaks to reporters after his failed challenge on Tuesday

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has narrowly failed to seize the prime ministership from Malcolm Turnbull.

Mr Dutton, who lost an internal party vote 35-48, is a polarising figure whose ministerial duties were last year expanded into a super portfolio - giving him considerable power.

He is a more hardline conservative than Mr Turnbull and is best known for overseeing Australia's tough and controversial policies on asylum seekers.

Mr Dutton alluded to such perceptions in a press briefing after his failed leadership challenge on Tuesday.

"It is good to be in front of the cameras where I can smile and maybe show a different side," he said.

Rise to leading conservative

Born in Brisbane, Mr Dutton spent nine years in the police force before being elected to the House of Representatives in 2001.

He has since occupied various ministries including health and sport, before taking over immigration in 2014.

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Image caption A protest about offshore detention in Sydney in July

Since then, Mr Dutton has been responsible for managing some of Australia's most divisive policies - including offshore detention for asylum seekers and refugees.

Canberra sends all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to islands in the Pacific and gives them no prospect of settling in Australia.

The policy has frequently drawn criticism from the UN and human rights groups, but Australia has insisted it saves lives at sea.

Mr Dutton told Fairfax Media in 2017: "This is a tough portfolio... but I get a lot of professional satisfaction out of it."

His reputation as a competent and respected minister within the government earned him a new super-portfolio based on the UK Home Office last year. In addition to immigration and border protection, Mr Dutton took on responsibility for all of Australia's domestic national security agencies.

Along the way he became the most senior conservative in Mr Turnbull's government.

Australia's second-longest serving prime minister, John Howard, has described Mr Dutton as a formidable and capable politician.

"He can clearly explain and justify the government's policies in an effective way. He's a very good communicator," Mr Howard told the Courier Mail last year (paywall).

Controversy and gaffes

In 2015 Mr Dutton was widely criticised for making light of rising sea levels affecting Pacific Island nations, after he was caught on camera joking about "water lapping at your door".

A year later, political journalist Samantha Maiden revealed Mr Dutton had called her a "mad [expletive] witch" in a text message. Mr Dutton later apologised.

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Image caption Australians listen to a historic apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008

He was also among several politicians who boycotted Australia's 2008 national apology to the Stolen Generations - a name given to tens of thousands of Aboriginal children who were forcibly taken from their families under infamous government policies until 1970.

  • Stolen Generations apology 'gave me peace'

Mr Dutton defended himself by saying the apology would not deliver "tangible outcomes" for children today. However, he later said he had overlooked the apology's significance.

In January, he controversially suggested people in Melbourne were "scared to go out in restaurants" because of African Australian street gangs - part of wider commentary that drew allegations of racist mischief-making.

A frequent critic of the left and focus of its scorn, Mr Dutton has become a ubiquitous subject of memes. In one famous instance, his staff asked for an "unflattering" Fairfax Media image - showing Mr Dutton half in shadow - to be taken down. But Twitter wasn't happy with this request and the picture went viral.

Why he remains a PM contender

Although Mr Dutton lost his leadership tilt, many observers predict that he could challenge Mr Turnbull again - possibly successfully.

The drama of Tuesday was brought to a head by successive poor opinion polls, a recent by-election loss in Queensland, and government divisions over energy policy. Australia's next election must take place by May next year.

  • Turnbull in climate policy U-turn

Some believe that Mr Dutton could help pick up votes in his home state Queensland, which has several key marginal seats.

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Image caption Mr Turnbull (L) and Mr Dutton in parliament on Monday

But others have speculated that Mr Dutton could cost the government votes in more historically progressive seats elsewhere in Australia.

Mr Dutton has not ruled out another challenge.

He said on Tuesday: "I will work every day to make sure the Coalition is elected at the next election."

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