Gordon Smith

The familiar sound of Peter Dutton’s nationalist dog whistle

Despite a whole city rising against his rhetoric, Peter Dutton’s tone is nothing new. In fact, blaming the other is a well worn path in Australian politics.



Across the suburbs of Melbourne, streets are bustling.

Cafes and restaurants are filled to the brim, lines to enter clubs and bars stretch across corners.

People of all creeds, colours and sobrieties gather in their droves at all hours of the day, and ride the rails late into the night.

Where once your favourite drinking hole was a quiet hideaway, it now requires a waiting list.

Melbourne is open later, open longer, and above all else, is more alive than ever before.

I tell you this not to paint any pictures of youthful exuberance, nor as some appraisal of Victoria’s cultural scene.

Nor am I making any attempt at promoting the city I live in, or raising a “my town’s better than your town” argument.

No, the reason I say this is to refute – in no small terms – the downright ludicrous claims our enlightened leaders have now sought to make, and loudly at that, not least of which being the farcical, hyperbole-soaked words of Peter Dutton, who took to the airwaves to announce that Melburnians are afraid to leave their homes.

Why, you ask? Well, because of those darn “African gangs” of course.

And who better than Dutton, a Queensland MP who raised his political capital in fields that can only be described as compassionate and full of empathy, to tell Victorians just how bad it is.

Dutton’s claims – eyebrow-raising as they may be – are perhaps the most pointed of racially charged inflammations, but they are just a piece of what is becoming an ever-growing tapestry of nationalistic-cum-racist shots being fired from our fair-minded government.

Tampa, eat your heart out.

Even still, such gnarlish poking of the xenophobic hive would surely see level-headed colleagues lining to condemn up their droves. Or at least, you would hope so.

Alas, Dutton’s comments come on the back of the Prime Minister himself weighing in on the “failures” of the Victorian government – and by extension, its police force – in tackling that same gang activity.

Just as this has meant an internal push for Labor to reach out to those further along the left, it has meant the Liberal and National parties have also begun having their own identity crises.

That’s the same gang activity that Victoria’s police force at all levels refuted even existing, until they were wedged and maligned by the government and the tabloid press alike.

Leaving out the state politics of the matter – say, for example, the wagging of the finger from a federal Liberal government at a state Labor government, at the beginning of a Victorian election year – the playing of the games of race represents a grim picture of Australia’s standard of debate.

For all its trumpeting of progression and social evolution, Australia – at least in political terms – has taken a sharp turn towards its protectionist cringe.

This isn’t to say Australia is a racist nation, by any means. Neither is it a judgment on the voting habits of the Australian people writ large.

But to say that the return of figures like Pauline Hanson to the federal stage and the unending debate about “economic migrants” and “extremists” in our society is not indicative of this turn, is to bury our heads in the sand.

Indeed, just as One Nation may present itself as a platform for a range of views and policies, or as being a credible alternative to the established parties, all while its “I don’t like it” foundations remain hidden in the back, sometimes the dogwhistling of nationalism is almost silent.

Silent in the sense that it can be veiled by some confected concern for safety on our roads, because of the overconfidence of tourists behind the wheel.

Just ask Sarah Henderson, who described international license holders as “moving time bombs” as she began her push for stricter hire car standards.

Whether or not that amounts to any real policy is anyone’s guess.

But it is in this absence of policy where the politics of fear run free.

And with good cause, too. After all, it’s a politic that reaps rewards.

Who could forget Howard’s thumping win in 2001, on the back of claims of asylum seekers throwing their children overboard in hopes of securing passage to Australia, and the danger such people posed to our society.

Or the ad nausea repetition of “stop the boats”, a slogan turned policy that even now both major parties are bound to, for fear of electoral oblivion otherwise.

Both examples, like most pitches to Australia’s xenophobic underbelly, dress their fearmongering up as a concern for public safety.

Really, Dutton’s outbursts are one and the same, perhaps just a little more transparently than most.

The government’s recent slide into the abyss of fear should be seen as nothing more than it really is: an attempt to appeal to the fringe dwelling constituents it has lost.

Unfortunate though it may be, governments that can walk the fine line between racism and protectionism are governments that are rewarded.

Especially when those spectating might otherwise turn to more extreme options on the political spectrum.

One Nation’s resurgence represented more than just a return to the 1990’s sweetheart – it represented a threat to the established conservative parties.

The government has been behind in almost every single poll since its election, and behind in a big way.

While this may appear to show simply a rise in Labor’s fortunes, it also shows votes being bled to One Nation at levels not seen in decades.

It’s not just the predictions of pollsters, either. Queensland’s recent election saw LNP candidates falling well short in the face of more extreme competitors.

The issue of One Nation’s role on the right of politics is so endemic that it is even being compared to Labor’s ideological battle with the Greens.

And, just as this has meant an internal push for Labor to reach out to those further along the left, it has meant the Liberal and National parties have also begun having their own identity crises.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t be them, join them.

If it is more nationalistic jingoing the voters want, it’s more nationalistic jingoing they will get.

When the battle of policy has been abandoned, it is in the battle of rhetoric that seats can be won.

The government’s recent slide into the abyss of fear should be seen as nothing more than it really is: an attempt to appeal to the fringe dwelling constituents it has lost.

We should not accept our leaders’ worries for community safety at face value. Just as we should not gloss over the racial tones behind such concerns, however subtle they may be.

More than anything, we should not let such hornets’ nest poking distract us from the absence of policy it sprouts from.

But for a government adrift in a sea of existential crises, and barren of any and all vision for the future, rhetoric will always rule over substance.


Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the big wigs in government to account.

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