By Jonathan Barrett and Erin Cooper
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Peter Dutton, who has launched a challenge to become Australia’s prime minister, is a polarising former police officer who forged a hard-line reputation enforcing tough immigration policies and making unpopular cuts to the health budget.
Dutton has emerged in recent months as the leader of the Liberal Party’s conservative faction, which has become increasingly frustrated by a slide in opinion polls under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, an urbane former merchant banker.
While winning plaudits from the right for preventing asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia, Dutton has been criticised by the left for comments about the rise of African gangs in Australian cities and for boycotting a government apology to Indigenous people in 2008.
A Dutton-led government would likely move Australia’s politics closer to those of U.S. President Donald Trump, with tax cuts and tariffs among his priorities, independent economist Saul Eslake said.
“He might be Trump-esque, not only pursuing tax cuts, and possibly unfunded tax cuts at that, but he will likely be more protectionist as well,” Eslake told Reuters.
In one of his first articulated policies, Dutton said this week he would exclude household electricity bills from Australia’s goods and services tax. He also supports a reduction in corporate tax rates.
Dutton has had prominent roles in expanding the security and surveillance powers of state in his role heading the powerful Home Affairs “super ministry”.
“He would be more populist but more inclined to big governments,” Eslake said.
Dutton’s bid to become the country’s 30th prime minister comes amid a tumultuous time in Australian politics.
A prime minister has not served a full parliamentary term in Australia in a decade, with leaders routinely being sacked by their parties amid poor polling.
Despite narrowly beating Dutton in a party-room vote earlier in the week, Turnbull said he will hold a second leadership vote on Friday if the majority of Liberal MPs sign a petition supporting the move.
But the leadership issue is complicated by questions over Dutton’s eligibility to sit in parliament.
Dutton, who denies there is any question over eligibility, is the beneficiary of a family trust with interests in childcare centres that receive government subsidies. Federal politicians are banned from benefitting financially from the government.
Turnbull said on Thursday the government’s chief lawyer would advise on Dutton’s eligibility on Friday morning.
If Dutton has the numbers to force a vote, Turnbull said he would not contest. Other lawmakers, including Treasurer Scott Morrison and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, could also challenge for the top job.
The son of a bricklayer, Dutton grew up in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland, a politically important region full of tightly-contested electorates that often determine the outcome of federal elections.
The 47-year-old, who is counting on strong support among his Queensland colleagues to unseat Turnbull, holds the seat of Dickson with a paper-thin 1.6 percent margin.
“Anything different is good; it would be a change for the better,” said Colin Grant, who runs a shoe repair store in the electorate of Dickson.
“He’d run the country well. People here agree with his policies.”
A general election is due by May 2019 at the latest and Dutton would face an opposition Labor Party riding high.
A poll by market research company Roy Morgan on Wednesday found Opposition leader Bill Shorten would be preferred prime minister in a head-to-head contest with Dutton, by a margin of 59 percent to 36.5 percent, while 4.5 percent undecided.
Despite a ministerial career spanning over a decade, Dutton is not widely known around the country, said Ian McAllister, professor of Political Science at Australian National University in Canberra.
“He’s only been Immigration Minister recently, and that’s not a particularly good portfolio as they tend to be known for making hard decisions about asylum seekers and refugees, rather than delivering good economic news, so he doesn’t have a high profile.”
Internationally, Dutton is best known for his hardline stance on immigration including the enforcement of Operation Sovereign Borders, a controversial policy that places asylum seekers arriving by boat in offshore detention centres.
He has, however, strongly supported some persecuted groups, including advocating for an increase in the number of Iraqi ethnic minority Yazidis to settle in Australia.
Earlier this year, Dutton was criticised by the South African government after he suggested white farmers were being persecuted and deserved protection with special visas from a “civilised country”.
Dutton has held a variety of ministerial roles since 2004, including the prominent health portfolio, where he regularly sparred with the medical association over funding. Dutton repeatedly warned of the “spiralling costs” of healthcare and sought reform.
Dutton unsuccessfully tried to introduce a A$7 ($5.12) fee a doctor visit for patients who would normally draw on Australia’s universal health insurance system and avoid out-of-pocket expenses.
The government eventually scrapped the unpopular measure.
“If his record is repeated as Prime Minister, I shudder at the consequences for the vulnerable in our community,” physician and former Australian Medical Association vice president Stephen Parnis said on Twitter on Thursday.
In 2008, when then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the formal apology to Indigenous people for past mistreatment, Dutton was the only Liberal cabinent minister to boycott the event – an act he has since said he regrets.
Rudd tweeted on Thursday that Dutton’s boycott should disqualify him from the country’s top political office.
“A grown man, experienced politician who knew what he was doing – sending a dog-whistle to racist sentiment,” Rudd tweeted.
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett and Erin Cooper in SYDNEY; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)