/Dutton and France in Dickson divided by politics but united by trauma

Dutton and France in Dickson divided by politics but united by trauma

Updated

May 11, 2019 03:16:17

Peter Dutton faces the “fight of his life” in the suburban Brisbane seat of Dickson.

Despite the obvious differences between Dutton and his rival Ali France, their paths to politics are not without parallel.

Much will be asked of both candidates in the next week — some questions new, some old.

And for Dutton, there’s one question older than all others.

The 20-year mystery of why he left the police force.

From a letter to the editor to ‘keeping Australians safe’

Dutton has always been fascinated by physical harm and its prevention.

A letter from “Peter Dutton from Enoggera” appeared in Brisbane newspaper The Courier Mail in 2000, more than a year before he became a MP.

In it, he disagreed with a critic opposed to police conducting strip-searches and claimed the critic “would be the first to complain” if a prisoner went unsearched and harmed themselves.

The letter pre-empted his election campaign the following year — and ultimately his political career.

As he sought to oust Labor frontbencher Cheryl Kernot in 2001, Dutton pursued a law and order agenda, citing drugs as voters’ top concern.

More recently, he has described his proposal for a national sex offenders’ register as the “toughest crackdown on paedophiles” and he has used the threat of the arrival of “murderers” and “rapists” within migrant cohorts to justify the Government’s approach to immigration.

Last year he made his priorities clear when facing criticism for holding a 17-year-old Kiwi found guilty of criminal charges in adult immigration detention.

“My primary obligation is to the Australian public, to keep Australians safe.”

In the past three years that phrase — “keep Australians safe” — has appeared in 69 separate transcripts, media releases and pages on Dutton’s website.

But in his own political career, safety has proven elusive.

Doubts over his eligibility as an MP have swirled. His decision to approve the visa of an au pair drew criticism. He accidently sent a text to a journalist that described that same journalist as a mad witch.

And he was identified as the architect for the Liberal Party’s latest implosion, the toppling of Malcolm Turnbull.

It’s a list of political injuries that few MPs could survive, but Dutton remains Home Affairs Minister — one of the most powerful individuals in Australia.

Outside politics too, he suffered pain.

An arm injury in November required him to miss two sitting weeks of Parliament.

But physical injuries are nothing new.

While in the police force Dutton suffered concussion, laceration, bruises, abrasions, as well as injuries to his cervical and thoracic spine, right shoulder and left knee.

That was from just a single incident: the moment that led to his resignation from the Queensland Police Service.

The question that’s plagued Dutton since he entered politics

Ideals of a safe Australia may drive Dutton’s work in Canberra, but within Dickson, politics has proven more local — right back to his first campaign.

Echoing this year’s flare-up with rival Ali France, controversy emerged in that first campaign about whether both Dutton and Kernot lived inside the boundaries of Dickson.

Kernot reportedly maintained a house on the Gold Coast where her husband worked, and only rented in the electorate.

In an attempt to counter the campaign against her, Kernot encouraged a journalist to pursue Dutton.

“I said to a journalist: ‘Listen, instead of asking me all the things the Liberals have said to you about me, can I suggest to you, you go and ask Dutton a whole range of questions including does he really live in the electorate in the way that he says he does’,” she explained later.

“Does he rent or does he own, including are his businesses Dickson-based or local-based?

“What does that mean and … why did he leave the police force?”

That last point hit a nerve.

Then-prime minister John Howard and senior police rallied around Dutton.

His sterling service record was produced.

And the result? Kernot was pilloried in the papers.

In a single line in a Courier Mail story in October 2001, it was reported that Dutton had resigned from the force to help the family business.

This issue — and the response to it — was perhaps the catalyst for Dutton toppling Kernot.

Whispers about his exit from the force have followed him around for two decades.

But that one line was as close to an explanation Australians have ever received.

Until now.

A chase, a crash, and a resignation from the force

According to court documents lodged in 2000 by the solicitor of a “Peter Craig Dutton” — one also sharing a birthday with the Minister — the incident occurred on August 4, 1998.

Dutton was a Detective Senior Constable in the Covert Surveillance Unit at the time.

According to these documents, he was sitting in an unmarked Mazda 626 outside a fast food establishment in the south-western Brisbane suburb of Goodna.

The then-27-year-old observed an escaped prisoner leave the store in a Holden Commodore.

Given instructions to intercept the man, he followed and was joined by at least one other police vehicle.

Dutton pursued the speeding vehicle and attempted to direct it to stop.

By this stage it had begun driving erratically.

A few kilometres from the fast food restaurant, the car turned off into an unpaved road and made a sharp turn in a dusty car park.

In pursuit, Dutton’s car clipped a concrete garden edge.

It was thrown onto its side and slid into a building.

Dutton’s head “struck the side window or side pillar of the Mazda which rendered him unconscious” and he “sustained a laceration behind the right ear”.

He was kept under observation at Ipswich Hospital for a “number of hours”.

In the week following, a bedridden Dutton experienced “severe headaches”.

These eventually settled with time, but the effects of the incident lingered.

He sought $250,000 plus interest from the insurance company of the escaped prisoner, arguing his injuries were the man’s fault.

This included money for future economic loss — “[he] will have difficulty in jobs involved lifting, bending, twisting or squatting”.

He reported suffering from pain in his back.

And he claimed he received “gratuitous domestic assistance” from his then-girlfriend and his mother, including cleaning, washing, ironing, and cooking.

In 2005, he discontinued the claim. The defence solicitor noted in 2003 “significant changes have occurred to the plaintiff’s employment and personal circumstances”.

It’s not clear whether any money changed hands.

The documents remain available from the court registry.

They contain the best explanation yet as to why Peter Dutton left the force.

It was not the massive head trauma or the whiplash. It wasn’t the shoulder, knee or spinal injuries.

It wasn’t so that he could work on the family business, as had previously been reported.

He “resigned from the Queensland Police Service on 30 July 1999 due to the fact his confidence in driving was low”.

Enter Ali France, the challenger

Ali France is the eldest daughter of former Queensland state minister Peter Lawlor.

She worked as a journalist for The Courier Mail, the same paper at the centre of the 2001 campaign.

She worked there for three years until 2000, the same year Dutton’s letter appeared in that paper’s pages.

She doesn’t live in the electorate (due to difficulty finding a wheelchair-accessible home).

And her path to politics, like in the case of Dutton’s, was driven in part by automobile trauma.

After leaving journalism and working in PR, communications and television for a decade, she was back in the pages of The Courier Mail in 2011.

This time however, it was due to a tragic traffic incident.

An elderly driver lost control of his car and drove into a wall in a car park.

In its path, France pushed her child to safety but was pinned against the wall.

She suffered a partially collapsed lung and had to have one of her legs amputated.

Her father at the time told The Courier Mail: “She realises she’s got a few challenges ahead of her but she’s up for the challenge.”

She took up outrigger canoeing in 2013 and won world championships for paracanoers.

In 2016 she told The Courier Mail — that paper again: “The last five years has been a real struggle for me and my family and it’s only been the last six months I’ve felt at ease with my body and my future.”

France grew into the role of disability advocate, and the cause has become part of her campaign.

In a recent election debate, she said “disability is not an excuse, it is our reality”.

“We don’t want pity, we don’t want special treatment,” she said.

“What we do expect in particular from leaders is that they have an understanding.”

Now for an election, and maybe time for healing

France describes herself as the “underdog” in the current contest but has benefited from the activist group GetUp attacking Dutton in Dickson.

This year Dutton has reportedly sold his Canberra apartment, prompting speculation that he may quit politics.

However, he appears to remain committed to the cause.

Dutton has turned criticism over his role in the Liberal leadership spill into a new weapon.

“The fact is my judgement was we were going to lose to Mr Shorten, which I thought would be a disaster for our electorate and for our country as well,” he told a cheering audience at a campaign debate in April.

Whoever loses can enjoy a future with less risk of injury — and perhaps not just political.

As Kernot pondered when she lost Dickson in 2001: “I get to go away and do some rebuilding, and some healing of my soul.”

Peter Dutton was approached for comment.

Topics:

government-and-politics,

accidents,

police,

crime,

federal-elections,

federal-election,

australia,

brisbane-4000

First posted

May 11, 2019 03:13:26