Peter Dutton has put his credibility in the frame by sticking to his claim about the role of an incident involving a young boy in triggering the Manus Island disturbance that saw Papua New Guinea defence personnel fire shots at the detention facility.
Dutton’s well-publicised but strongly disputed allegation will be tested by the investigations being done by the PNG defence and police authorities, while Senate estimates in a few weeks should also provide a chance to probe it.
Dutton is a former policeman, which is just one reason why he should be held to the highest standards of accuracy in making a claim.
How Dutton comes out of this dispute about facts is particularly important, because it goes to the character of the conservative Liberal from Queensland who is touted as a possible future leader.
In notable contrast to the obvious tensions between Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison, the prime minister and his immigration minister are walking in lockstep. Dutton is at the heart of Turnbull’s attempt to win voters’ support with tougher policies on foreign workers and citizenship.
When Dutton last week was asked on Sky what he knew about the Good Friday violence he said: “There was difficulty, as I understand it, in the community. There was an alleged incident where three asylum seekers were alleged to be leading a local five-year-old boy back toward the facility and there was a lot of angst around that, if you like, within the local PNG community.”
Pressed on why there was this angst, he said: “Well because I think there was concern about why the boy was being led, or for what purpose he was being led away back into the regional processing centre. So I think it is fair to say that the mood had elevated quite quickly. I think some of the local residents were quite angry about this particular incident and another alleged sexual assault.”
But Manus Province police commander David Yapu rejected this version. He told Fairfax the boy, who he said was aged about ten, had been given fruit in the centre about a week before the violence.
“Then Wilson Security had to intervene and get him out from the centre. That had nothing to do with the latest incident involving soldiers,” Yapu said. “The child incident is unrelated.”
Earlier Yapu was reported to have said the soldiers’ drunken rampage was retaliation following a clash between navy personnel and asylum seekers who were playing soccer in the navy base.
When it was put to Dutton on Sunday that what he’d said wasn’t true, he retorted: “It is true. And the briefing that I’ve had is particularly succinct and clear … I can give you the facts in relation to it or you can take the Twitter version.”
Reference to “the Twitter version” was an obvious attempt to denigrate the alternative account. But that alternative came in the form of direct quotes from a local police commander.
Dutton told interviewer Barrie Cassidy that “there are facts that I have that you don’t”. Pressed on the source of his information he said: “I have senior people on the island. We also have obviously significant contacts with the governor and people of Manus.”
Let’s hope that the evidence-gathering speedily produces “the facts”, whether those facts contradict or back Dutton.
Ministers should not be allowed to slip away from taking responsibility – as former immigration minister Morrison did over his wrong claims against Save the Children personnel. On the other hand, if Dutton is so certain he’s got the right story, he has every interest in seeing the proof out in public to back it.
Meanwhile at the weekend US Vice-President Mike Pence reiterated that the Americans will stick by the deal the Turnbull government did with the Obama administration to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. But Pence didn’t miss the opportunity to again register the Trump administration’s unhappiness with the deal. The honouring “doesn’t mean we admire the agreement,” he told his news conference with Turnbull.
Pence cast the honouring in firmly alliance terms: “The decision to go forward I think can rightly be seen as a reflection of the enormous importance of the historic alliance between the United States and Australia,” he said.
“And whatever reservations the president may have about the details of agreements reached by the prior administration, we’ll honour this agreement, out of respect for that enormously important alliance.”
The firm message-behind-the-message seemed clear: don’t forget we’re doing you a big favour.
Labor leads the Coalition 52-48% in Newspoll, compared with 53-47% three weeks ago. The Coalition’s primary vote remains at 36% in the poll, published in Monday’s Australian, while Labor has slipped from 36% to 35%, and the Greens from 10% to 9%. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation remains at 10%.
Malcolm Turnbull’s net satisfaction has improved from minus 29 points to minus 25; while Bill Shorten’s net satisfaction has gone from minus 22 to minus 20.