Mark Riley: There’s no going back as ordinarily civil leaders’ debate turns ugly

Headshot of Mark Riley
Mark Riley
The Nightly
4 Min Read
The gloves are off and the knuckle dusters are on.
The gloves are off and the knuckle dusters are on. Credit: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

The nature of the political contest has changed irrevocably.

The clash of leaders has become nasty, ugly, and visceral.

Peter Dutton’s bruising attack on Anthony Albanese, accusing him of “abandoning” the Jewish community “at their time of need” and of political incompetence over the mass release of criminal detainees, has projected the normally willing but mostly civil leaders’ debate into a fierce and bitter personal war.

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The gloves are off and the knuckle dusters are on.

And that is exactly what Dutton wants. His attempts to match Albanese on the traditional territory of political and policy engagement haven’t worked.

He has failed to gain any personal ground from Albanese’s abject defeat in the Voice referendum. Albanese’s numbers have fallen, but so have Dutton’s. The Government’s primary vote is down, but so is the Coalition’s. Albanese has lost bark, but Dutton hasn’t grown.

So, now, Peter Dutton has thrown all caution to the wind. He’s going all out and all in.

Peter Dutton (left) and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Peter Dutton (left) and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are on different sides of the voice debate. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

In doing so, he is dragging Albanese into the bloody world of the political colosseum. It is a part of the parliamentary landscape Albanese was well acquainted with in his past lives as a government leader of the House and chief opposition attack dog. But it is one he decidedly does not want to inhabit as Prime Minister.

Yet it is also, as this column has previously observed, the arena in which Dutton is most effective and sees his best chance of increasing the velocity of the ascendant Prime Minister’s return to earth.

If Dutton’s objective was to get under Albanese’s skin, he succeeded.

Even though Albanese clearly got the better of his opponent in the Parliament, exposing the Opposition Leader’s attack for its crass opportunism, I’m told the Prime Minister was utterly implacable after he’d returned to his office and prepared to fly to San Francisco for APEC.

What Dutton had dismissed as “confected” outrage wasn’t that. It was real. It was deep. And it was boiling.

Albanese was incredulous. He told his senior staff he was stunned that Dutton “would go so low”.

He saw it as an assault on his essential integrity as a leader and as a person, an attack on his basic values, principles and beliefs.

After the ugly clashes on the streets of Melbourne and the despicable chants of “gas the Jews” on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, Dutton thundered that Albanese “needs to stand up and be united with the Jewish community and he is not!”

A charge that directly accuses the Prime Minister of abrogating his principal responsibility to protect the people. Allegations do not come more serious.

That enraged the Prime Minister, who insisted he had been fully engaged and entirely united with the Jewish community from the outset, meeting with its leaders and rabbis and making strong public statements condemning Hamas and the barbaric attacks which had sparked the war in Gaza.

But it was Dutton’s decision to conjoin the High Court’s ruling on criminal detainees that really incensed Albanese.

“To come in here and move this resolution and link antisemitism with the decision of the High Court is beyond contempt!” Albanese roared.

It was as angry and as animated as I’ve seen Albanese in his 18 months as Prime Minister.

“I make no apologies for trying to bring communities together, not divide them, because that’s the role of political leaders,” he said, his brow creased in outrage.

“At a time when there is social division, leaders have a choice. They have a choice to either bring people together or divide them, to look for unity or look for opportunism.”

He then trained an accusatory finger on Dutton.

“And what we have seen from this bloke here is consistent with his entire political career. It has been based upon division!”

Dutton appeared surprised at the ferocity of Albanese’s response. But he is not one for taking a backward step.

With Albanese freshly landed in San Francisco yesterday morning, Dutton doubled down as the Government’s emergency legislation in response to the High Court ruling was put before the Parliament.

Railing against Albanese’s decision to go to APEC (as every prime minister before him has done), Dutton accused him of “taking a decision to abandon the Australian people when they need him most”.

A charge that directly accuses the Prime Minister of abrogating his principal responsibility to protect the people.

Allegations do not come more serious.

The game has changed. And it is not changing back.

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