A few weeks back, Peter Dutton suffered a major blow when he was defeated by Scott Morrison in the Liberal leadership battle. But despite this, the divisive politician remains a formidable force in the party room.
Dutton’s still in charge of the home affairs super-ministry. And while immigration has been removed from his portfolio, he retains control over the Australian Border Force (ABF), along with ASIO and the Australian federal police.
So, as long as the minister continues to be such a strong powerbroker in parliament, he’ll persist in promoting conservative responses to political issues. And that’s why there’s now a concerted effort to hit him where he’s most vulnerable: in his marginal seat of Dickson.
The Australian Greens are seeking to knock Dutton off his perch in the next federal election by pitting him against a candidate who’s the minister’s polar opposite: Oxford-educated human rights lawyer Benedict Coyne.
Dutton’s Achilles heel
Dutton has held the north Brisbane seat of Dickson since 2001. But, support for the former Queensland police officer is wavering. In the 2016 election, the home affairs minister suffered a 5.2 percent swing against him, leaving him with a mere 1.6 percent margin.
A recent boundary change has improved Dutton’s distribution slightly to margin of 1.7 percent. However, this still means that all it would only take to oust the minister from office is a shift of around 1,500 votes.
And let’s face it, minister Dutton’s done little to endear himself to the public since the last election. As immigration minister, he had a focus on trying to deport asylum seekers who’ve been living in the community for years, whilst letting European au pairs in through the backdoor.
Dutton has also suggested that Australia should favour white South African farmers over other potential refugees, whilst stirring up race hatred over a so-called African gang crisis in Melbourne. And his ABF officers continue to detain over one hundred children on Nauru.
A human rights crusader
Benedict Coyne believes the people of Dickson are well overdue for a change, as they haven’t seen any real representation for a very long time. And he stresses that minister Dutton has repeatedly voted against the interests of families and small businesses in the local area.
The lawyer obtained a masters in international human rights law from Oxford University, and he completed his undergraduate law degree at Southern Cross University, where he was awarded the university medal for outstanding academic achievement.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke to the former president of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights Benedict Coyne about the alternative he’s offering Dickson voters, the political issues that are his priorities and his vision of a Dutton-free future.
Firstly, you’re running against Peter Dutton in the seat of Dickson in the next federal election. A few weeks back, he suffered a defeat during the leadership challenge. But, now he’s back in charge of the home affairs portfolio, minus immigration.
Mr Coyne, how much of a threat to good governance in this country does Mr Dutton pose in his renewed capacity as home affairs minister?
This election, and my nomination as the Greens candidate for the seat of Dickson, is not just about this one man.
Peter Dutton has overseen decision-making in the areas of home affairs and immigration that have caused actual and significant harm to innocent children, women and men fleeing persecution and in doing so, actual and significant harm to Australia’s international reputation.
These are people just like us seeking a better life. Yet Peter Dutton is just one person within a government – and within a radical right wing movement – that is taking our country in this deeply dangerous and divisive direction.
It is not just Peter Dutton who threatens the sanctity of our democracy and the safety of our community, but an ideology that has pervaded large segments of both major parties, and a multitude of minor parties as well.
I am standing with the Greens as a party that offers a policy platform that is not based on dividing our society for the sake of electoral wins, that is fully-costed and evidence-based, that is holistic and forward-looking and is committed to addressing the growing inequalities in our society, rather than perpetuating them.
Under the Abbott/Turnbull government, Dutton held the immigration and border security portfolio, before moving on to preside over the home affairs ministry.
In your opinion, over his time in parliament, what sort of an impact has Peter Dutton had on the political climate of this country?
Australia’s current political climate – a climate of instability, division, and growing community distrust in our political institutions – has been driven by both major parties over a number of years.
Peter Dutton has capitalised on this politics of fear and division and driven a hard right agenda to serve his own interests.
Over the last five years the two major parties have taken over $100 million in corporate donations and have in turn, made decisions that benefit those donors above our communities.
Peter Dutton, and the ideologies he and others in our parliament represent, are harmful to our community, to our children’s future and to the global standing of our country.
Both Peter Dutton and prime minister Scott Morrison have overseen a radical regime of targeted cruelty and punitive deterrence that is unlawful in international law, and has cost billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money without lawful authorisation.
In March 2015, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, found the Australian government in violation of Articles 1, 3 and 16 of the Convention Against Torture, which is unprecedented in our lifetime.
Peter Dutton’s conduct in dog whistling and race-baiting via his propagations of white South African farmers, Sudanese African gangs in Melbourne and Lebanese immigrants is unbecoming of a federal minister.
The Greens, on the other hand, were the first party to advocate for a Federal ICAC, and seek to restore integrity to our democracy as well as our nation.
Mr Dutton has held the seat of Dickson since 2001. How would you say the people of Dickson have fared under his representation?
Peter Dutton is not representative of the residents of Dickson, nor has he acted in their best interests since being elected to parliament. He has lost touch with the people who have elected him, as he continues to pursue his own career ambitions.
My team and I have talked to many voters in the electorate who are both dumbfounded and disenfranchised by what is happening in Australian politics, and how the integrity of our democracy and our reputation as a nation has been eroded by short-sighted and self-interested decision-making.
They feel unheard and that is because they have been let down by their local representative, as well as the decisions made by successive major party governments over a number of years.
Peter Dutton has voted against the workers of Dickson on numerous occasions when he voted to cut penalty rates that affect over 3,000 workers in Dickson.
Peter Dutton has consistently voted against small business in Dickson when he voted 22 times against the banking royal commission, when he votes against investment in renewable energy and when he votes in the interests of big business at the expense of small business.
The level of income inequality in Dickson is significant – yet neither major offer a solution.
The electorate has one of the highest per capita uptakes of domestic rooftop solar in the country, yet its local representative is stopping Australia from taking action on climate change and moving towards the sustainable energy industries of our future.
The community of Dickson have been let down by their representative, by his party and their governments over many years.
Peter Dutton boycotted the National Apology to the Stolen Generation. He voted against marriage equality and increasing the aged pension. He’s voted against environmental protection, including for the Great Barrier Reef. He’s voted against workers’ rights. He’s voted against increasing funding to tertiary education. He’s voted against restricting donations to political parties.
The Greens, on the other hand, are a grassroots democratic organisation. We’re actually out there in the community talking to people about the issues that are important to them. And that is reflected in our policy platforms.
We stand for universal free education, from early childhood through to TAFE and tertiary. We stand for a planning system that works for the community, not just property developers. We will make big multinational corporations pay their fair share for the value they take from our community. We support the union movement’s Change the Rules campaign, in full.
We are here and looking forward to our children’s future and their childrens’ childrens’ future.
The Greens offer the kind of representation Dickson and other communities need. Real representation where the community comes first because we are not beholden to corporate donors, but to the people we represent.
Electing the major parties in Dickson will just be a toxic dose of more of the same lame old politics of self-interest in the ego-bubble of Canberra. I think the people of Dickson deserve much more.
Mr Coyne, you’ve been described as the polar opposite of Peter Dutton. What sort of a platform will you be campaigning on? What are your policy priorities?
First and foremost, I am a father and I am very concerned about the future of my daughter and all children in these difficult and dangerous times of massive socio-political upheavals around the world: a world at war, unprecedented numbers of refugees and displaced persons, climate change… the list goes on.
In Australia, we have a golden opportunity to make a real positive difference and to take a lead on the global stage in promoting renewable energy and powerful progressive policies on income inequality, cost of living pressures, and universal access to health, education, a home etc.
The Greens are running a positive campaign, focused on the things that matter to our community, our nation and our future.
Everyone should have opportunity to reach their potential in life, regardless of what gender, race, class or suburb they were born into. We should be a smart and sustainable world-leader, building a positive economic future for our community. We must restore integrity to our democracy.
I am running on a campaign where I listen to the people of Dickson and to what is happening in their day-to-day lives, and I know my Greens colleagues in electorates around the country are doing the same.
In Dickson, we know that the main concern of voters are cost-of-living pressures, health, education and infrastructure and I will be listening to voters on these important issues all of which encompass fundamental human rights.
After close to two decades under the representation of Mr Dutton, what would you say you’ll be offering the people of Dickson as a change?
I’m already out there, listening and talking with people in Dickson about what they would like to see.
They want a representative who votes in their best interests, I offer that. They want a representative who doesn’t harm Australia’s international reputation by driving racist policy agendas, I offer that.
They want to have faith in our democracy again, and they see corporate donations as the massive corrupting influence they are.
The people of Dickson, like many people in Australia want to see integrity urgently returned to the House of Representatives and the Senate, and planning for a strong sustainable economic future beyond short-term election cycles.
People want substantive fresh change and new opportunities that means ending the two-party binary.
You’re a human rights lawyer. What have been some of the highlights of your career in the legal profession?
I am proud to have represented the great diversity of the Australian community during my time as a lawyer. I have stood up for people from all walks of life, from farmers to Traditional Owners, to regional towns, to workers, to people with a disability, children and young people.
I am proud to stand beside and stand up for people who have been discriminated against or marginalised or harmed in some way.
I am proud of the work that I have done and continue to do. And I am very proud of the work that Australian Lawyers for Human Rights has always done, and continues to do under the excellent leadership of my former colleagues.
Career highlights include co-leading the campaign for a Queensland Human Rights Act – which, after a long fought campaign, is very close to success. I am very proud of running cases against Adani for Adrian Burragubba and the Wangan & Jagalingou People, as well as a Racial Discrimination Act group complaint against Apple, Google and Facebook.
I am proud to stand for our community against systems that are not serving us, and against people that seek to marginalise our rights. I will continue to do that, both as a lawyer and as the Greens candidate for Dickson.
Many Australians were very unimpressed about the leadership spill. What’s your take on what happened?
What happened is symptomatic of a system where our representatives stopped representing us. We have not had a prime minister last a full-term in the role for over ten years.
In the last decade, representatives from both major parties have put their personal ambitions and electoral ambitions ahead of the people they are employed to represent, us.
Talking to people in Dickson, many are increasingly turned off by our political system, but I remind them that their vote is powerful. That we can vote for the change we want to see and that the Greens are out there, listening, and standing strong to restore integrity to our democracy.
And lastly, you’re aiming to knock Peter Dutton off his political perch. GetUp are running the Time to Ditch Dutton campaign, which has the same goal.
Mr Coyne, how likely do you think the next federal election will see an end to Peter Dutton’s reign in parliament?
Whilst I am not a betting man, the simple fact is that Dickson is a marginal seat and the polls are not favouring the government. As aforementioned, I am not here just because of that one man, but because I believe the Greens offer hope for the kind of future we all want and deserve.
The Greens are on track to have a candidate in every seat around the country and each day we have more people who are keen to join the movement by joining the party or volunteering on our campaign.
It’s an exciting place to be, and so wonderful to see our community come together for something bigger than us all.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.