The power of a thug

Peter Dutton’s Trumpian attacks on the media must not be allowed to stand

The angry interview only served to confirm the label that has been floating around all week. Opposition leader Peter Dutton’s interview with 730 host Sarah Ferguson showed him to be a “thug” — a man incapable of handling real scrutiny, turning straight to personal attacks when he lacked an answer to his interviewer’s questions. This was the first time Dutton has been made to answer for his incoherent stance on Stage Three (ie: waving through Labor’s changes because “people need help”, while blasting Labor for making them). And he could not deal, repeatedly accusing Ferguson of bias for asking him to acknowledge the merit of the policy he was supporting, or how he intended to pay for the high income tax cuts he’s pledged to reinstate (he did not provide an answer). The worst sledge, however, came when Ferguson asked if his political momentum was slipping, with a rattled Opposition leader alleging that the ABC’s “far left” culture was permeating the questions. As Dutton himself said to journalists earlier this week, when asked about former PM Malcolm Turnbull’s comments on Nemesis: “have you found me to be a thug?”

Ferguson, to her credit, kept her cool, repeatedly rejecting Dutton’s inappropriate ad hominem attacks. But it’s nonetheless alarming to see the Opposition leader turn straight to the Trumpian “fake news” playbook when asked about his contradictory positions, or when his lies are called out. As my co-columnist Daniel James noted, Dutton is unused to stepping outside the conservative media “protection racket”, where he is never probed on any of the nonsense he spouts (as predicted, he went straight back to the safety of his chummy chats with Ray Hadley this morning). There is, as a gleeful Anthony Albanese asserted during Question Time today, good reason Dutton is kept away from serious interviews; he “absolutely disintegrated on national TV last night”, added Treasurer Jim Chalmers, as the government used every opportunity to bring up the trainwreck interview.

This is not the first time Dutton has done this lately. Many were offended when he took to social media, following reports that the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy was moving to the PM’s office, to take a random swipe at Nine chief political correspondent David Crowe, suggesting he had “missed out” on the role (“What more must he do to prove his credentials to formally be employed by the Labor Party?” Dutton posted on X, with the hashtag #givecroweago). As the Canberra Times’ Mark Kenny wrote over the weekend, this was “not just churlish but clearly intimidatory,” intended to “make Crowe and his colleagues think twice about what stories they run and how they express them, while sounding a warning to others.”

Last night’s trainwreck became a great joke in today’s Question Time, but we should be alarmed by Dutton’s hostile and aggressive behaviour towards journalists who don’t subscribe to his (often objectively false) version of reality. As Ferguson pointed out, as he quibbled with her questions, we need to be able to agree on some facts. And the fact is, Dutton is displaying some disturbingly authoritarian tendencies, not least refusing to admit that he has had objectively appalling week.

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