Immigration

Peter Dutton: A brief history of the man who wants to be Prime Minister

0:00

He is the hard-nosed Home Affairs minister known for “stopping the boats” and now Peter Dutton has put his political future on the line challenging the Prime Minister.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is one of the most polarising figures in Australian politics.

On Tuesday, the former Queensland drug squad cop challenged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a dramatic party room meeting.

The 47-year-old was defeated by 13 votes and is expected to resign from Turnbull's Cabinet, but it's unlikely his leadership ambitions are over. 

"He’s seen as the leading light of the conservative wing of the Liberal Party and he is the go-to mouthpiece for that branch of the Liberals," political analyst Chris Salisbury told SBS News this week.

The former health minister made his mark as immigration minister since December 2014, throwing his weight behind the Operation Sovereign Borders policy, turning back asylum seeker boats heading to Australia. He gained more influence when he took over the newly-created mega Home Affairs portfolio. 

But Dr Salisbury says the hard-line stance that has made him the right's preferred choice for prime minister has also created an image problem that could hurt his leadership aspirations.

Peter Dutton voted for Tony Abbott when Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged him for the leadership in 2015.
Peter Dutton voted for Tony Abbott when Malcolm Turnbull successfully challenged him for the leadership in 2015.
AAP

Controversial comments

Whether embarrassing gaffes or deliberate attempts to stir up what he calls the "crazy left", Mr Dutton's statements regularly cause outrage.

In January he said Melburnians were “scared to go out to restaurants” because of 'African gang' violence.

Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott laughs at an inappropriate comment from Peter Dutton about rising sea levels threatening Pacific Islands.
Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott laughs at an inappropriate comment from Peter Dutton about rising sea levels threatening Pacific Islands.
AAP

He had to apologise after being caught on camera making a joke about rising sea levels threatening low-lying Pacific Islands. Another apology was required for calling journalist Samantha Maiden a “mad f***ing witch” in a text message that he meant to send to a colleague but accidentally sent to Maiden.

As the enforcer of Australia's tough offshore detention policy, he has regularly clashed with refugee advocates over conditions on Nauru and Manus Island and his refusal to allow asylum seekers access to medical care on the mainland.  

Among his more offensive comments about refugees, he once said allowing Lebanese Muslim refugees into Australia in the 1970s was a “mistake” accusing them of being responsible for higher crime rates in Western Sydney.

In response to a Greens proposal to boost Australia’s refugee intake, he once said “illiterate and innumerate” asylum seekers would take local jobs or languish on the dole.

He showed an unusual level of compassion for “persecuted” South African farmers, proposing a special visa be made available to them – an idea that was rejected by most of his colleagues and caused a diplomatic rift with South African leaders.

While he’s known for his uncompromising stance on immigration, his supporters insist he has a deeper, caring side.

Peter Dutton watches Yazidi children dance during Refugee Week in 2017.
Peter Dutton watches Yazidi children dance during Refugee Week in 2017.
AAP

Something that was on show when he offered support to Yazidis held captive by IS in Iraq and Syria, opening the door to more victims in an interview with SBS News in May. 

“It's really unbelievably horrific and that's why Australia's acted to provide support,” he said. 

As health minister, he oversaw the establishment of a $20 billion medical research fund and received praise for a comprehensive mental health plan. 

However, his proposal to charge a $7 fee for GP visits angered the medical profession and the public. His one-year stint managing the portfolio was rated the worst in the role in an Australian Doctor poll - a publication Dutton dismissed "as online leftist publication that really carries no weight".

When then-prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations in 2008, Dutton was the only member of the Coalition frontbench colleagues not there to applaud. He even offered to resign his portfolios to make a stand, although, he now says he regrets not being there.

0:00

Life outside of Parliament

Mr Dutton had modest beginnings. Born in Brisbane in 1970, he is the eldest of four children. His father was a bricklayer and his mother a child care worker.

He has said he wanted to earn his way from a young age, delivering newspapers, mowing lawns and working in a butcher shop in his teens. 

At age 18, he joined the Young Liberals and a year later made his first run for political office, but his bid for the Queensland state seat of Lytton was unsuccessful.

Instead he served almost a decade with the Queensland Police Force, the bulk of his time as a detective in the Drug and Sex offenders Squads in Brisbane suburbs.

Peter Dutton served as a police officer for nine years.
Peter Dutton served as a police officer for nine years.
Supplied

In his maiden speech he reflected on his time in the police force.

"I often say to people that, as a police officer, I have seen the best and the worst that society has to offer. I have seen the wonderful, kind nature of people willing to offer any assistance to those in their worst hour, and I have seen the sickening behaviour displayed by people who, frankly, barely justify their existence in our sometimes over tolerant society."

After returning to university and completing a Bachelor of Business he joined his father’s business buying rundown buildings and converting them into child care facilities.

His interest in real estate had begun much earlier, buying his first place at age 19. He and his second wife now own six properties including a Townsville shopping centre. 

The father of three entered Federal Parliament in 2001, ousting Labor’s Cheryl Kernot from the federal seat of Dickson, in Brisbane’s outer suburbs, after her defection from the Democrats.

Federal Member for Dickson Peter Dutton casts his vote alongside wife Kirilly Dutton.
Federal Member for Dickson Peter Dutton casts his vote alongside wife Kirilly Dutton.
AAP

Would a Dutton-led government be more popular? 

The drop in support for the Turnbull government is making MPs in marginal seats nervous and fuelling leadership tensions. 

Holding his electorate of Dickson by just 1.6 per cent, Peter Dutton is among those worried about their future, particularly after the drop in support recorded in the Longman by-election. 

But is Dutton the man to turn it around? 

Dr Salisbury, who is a research associate at the University of Queensland's School of Political Science, isn't convinced given Dutton's polarising views and seemingly cold persona.

"I don't know that that's necessarily what the Australian public want in their leader at this point in time. That kind of persona  was rejected when Tony Abbott lost the leadership of the liberal party," Dr Salisbury said. 

"It's enough to turn off a number within his electorate and the broader electorate."  

His bald head and often expressionless face has earnt him the nickname of Mr Potato Head. 

Dutton says he's unfazed by his reputation, telling Fairfax Media last year: “People never spoke about John Howard’s charisma. At many times during John Howard’s career, he was deeply unpopular.”

If he was to mount a successful challenge the 47-year-old would become Australia's first prime minister born in the 1970s. 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch