An ugly fight we do not need in anxious times

An ugly fight we do not need in anxious times

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A cheap ploy for political gain has brought on an ugly fight that parliament did not need to have and Australians did not need to hear.

Peter Dutton saw a chance to provoke Anthony Albanese on border protection, but ran so hard towards his big political moment that he tripped over himself with his angry, bellicose claims.

The result was an inflammatory attack that tried to whip up a sense of domestic panic over the war in the Middle East at the very time that the head of our peak security agency warns about the need for calm language.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton laid into the PM for being as “weak as water”.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Dutton went too far with a foolish attempt to link the release of 83 asylum seekers, as a result of a High Court decision, with the threat of antisemitism across Australia as a result of conflict in the Middle East, and claim that both proved the prime minister’s weakness.

This was overreach, pure and simple, and a tactical blunder by the opposition leader and his colleagues when they had good grounds to challenge Albanese on asylum seeker policy after the High Court forced the release of three murderers and an unknown number of sex offenders.

The disgrace was the way Dutton made a sweeping claim – that Albanese should be condemned for failing to stamp out antisemitism – and poured it like petrol over a motion about an entirely separate issue to score points in the middle of question time.

“This prime minister needs to stand up and to be united with the Jewish community – and he’s not,” Dutton claimed.

Dutton moved quickly to the asylum seeker decision, the cost of living, the last two budgets and the prime minister’s travel to global meetings. It was a jumble of complaints with an aggressive attack on his opponent’s character.

“This prime minister is as weak as water and the Australian public are working out what a fake and a fraud he and his government have turned out to be,” he said.

The Coalition’s immigration spokesman, Dan Tehan, was more targeted. He focused on the asylum seeker issue, accused the government of being too slow and said the Coalition was willing to keep parliament sitting as long as it took to pass laws to fix the problem.

But the policy was no longer the issue. Dutton had made it about antisemitism.

The prime minister vehemently rejected Dutton’s accusations.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Albanese was so angry he was almost shaking when he launched his speech in reply. He pointed to his record in speaking against attacks on Jewish people and his rejection, over many years, of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

He was too angry. He could have condemned Dutton without fury in order to lower the temperature.

Albanese condemned Hamas for its attacks, called it a terrorist group and expressed his horror at the loss of innocent Israeli lives, but he also mentioned Palestinian deaths and this seemed to upset some of the Liberals. He reminded them he was talking about the loss of innocent babies.

“I stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself, I’ve done that consistently, but I also say how it does it matters,” he said.

Dutton has been desperate to exploit a Labor divide on Israel and Gaza, but his tactic only unified his opponents. Nothing Albanese said was at odds with Foreign Minister Penny Wong in her call for “steps towards a ceasefire” and an end to Israeli attacks on hospitals.

Old hands know that overreach is the most common mistake in politics. While Dutton is unlikely to admit he blundered, he looked wooden as Albanese spoke. And his failure was more than tactical. He showed bad judgement and poor leadership.

Allegra Spender and Zoe Daniel in discussion with Leader of the House Tony Burke during Question Time. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The member for Wentworth, Allegra Spender, called Dutton “reckless” and the member for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, called his move “extremely dangerous” because it played games with antisemitism. They considered moving an amendment to Dutton’s motion condemning Albanese, but they did not need to. The Coalition lost by 54 to 86 votes.

It is only a few weeks since Australia’s director general of security, Mike Burgess, called for moderate language when talking about Israel and Gaza.

“We do see a direct correlation between language that inflames tension and out of that tension does grow a small number of people who think violence is the answer,” he said. “It’s something that we all have to be mindful of, and that’s for all Australians to play their part.”

Communities are divided and tempers are frayed over war in the Middle East. How did Dutton help? His attack was incendiary by design. At the very moment leaders are meant to be calm, he chose to inflame.

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