It would be an easy mistake to relegate Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to the same category as serial ministerial muddler, Attorney-General George Brandis.
Like his fellow Queenslander Senator Brandis, Mr Dutton has stumbled from misspeak to pratfall ever since being given responsibility for one of our nation’s most sensitive and important portfolios.
Remember boom-gate, when Mr Dutton demonstrated an awareness of his surroundings no doubt developed during his earlier life as a police officer, making crass private jokes about “Cape York time” and rising sea levels that were captured by a boom microphone being held in plain sight just above his head?
Then there was the bungled plan for jackbooted Border Force officials to spot-check visas in Melbourne. And the sympathetic text message describing a journalist as a “mad f***ing witch” that Mr Dutton meant for disgraced colleague Jamie Briggs but sent instead to the woman in question.
Not to mention his nonsensical but inflammatory claim made during the lead-up to the July federal election that illiterate and innumerate refugees were stealing Australian jobs, while at the same time languishing on the nation’s unemployment queues.
And then there is Mr Dutton’s latest commentary on the “disadvantages” of immigration, with the claim that the Fraser government’s generous refugee program in the 1970s should be blamed for homegrown extremism within the local Lebanese community.
Yes, it would be all too easy to dismiss the Immigration Minister as a buffoon and a fool. But to do so would be a mistake.
For while these actions and comments appear to most observers as those of an inept and intolerant man, they are a clarion call to one select group: namely the Tony Abbott faction within the Liberal Party.
The heir apparent
As the convenor of the Monkey Pod lunches patronised by the arch conservatives that make up this faction, Peter Dutton not only fancies himself as leader of the group but also the presumptive heir to Tony Abbott’s mantle.
Before Malcolm Turnbull regained the Liberal leadership, the previous immigration minister Scott Morrison was the conservatives’ favoured son.
But Mr Morrison fell out of favour with the right when he failed to rally Liberal colleagues to vote for Mr Abbott during the leadership tussle.
Having excommunicated Mr Morrison, the right’s succession planning was thrown into disarray.
However it appears the younger members of the Abbott faction wasted no time angling for former Western Australian treasurer and now federal Social Services Minister, Christian Porter, to be groomed as the next conservative prime minister.
But as credentialed as he is, Mr Porter might not yet have enough gravitas to convince his colleagues that he’s ready for the ultimate promotion.
This is important because the arch conservatives are seriously beginning to think the top job (and a triumphant return to cabinet) is back within their grasp.
Depending on the polls
Support for the government, as measured by opinion polls, is now as bad under Mr Turnbull as it was under Mr Abbott. Yet there appears to be no appetite within the Australian community for Mr Abbott to be returned to the leadership.
If the Labor Party remains dominant in the opinion polls next year, with Mr Abbott and his cronies fomenting dissent and the PM seemingly incapable of stopping government MPs from running amok, the Liberals may again feel compelled to do the unthinkable, which is to switch leaders.
With Mr Porter still on training wheels, Mr Dutton appears to be entertaining delusions that he is the man to step into the breach.
Considered in this light, it’s easy to see the former plod’s tough-man antics are an audition for the right’s leading role.
This is what makes it necessary but also difficult for Mr Turnbull to discipline his Immigration Minister.
By failing to denounce Mr Dutton’s anti-immigration dog-whistling for what it is, the PM further fractures what little hope remains in Australian moderates and progressives that he will reconnect with his inner humanitarian.
Yet if Mr Turnbull spoke of Mr Dutton in anything less than glowing terms, the PM would further alienate the Liberal arch conservatives and potentially strengthen their support for Mr Dutton as an alternative prime minister.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.