‘I know nothing’: What is powerful Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton really trying to say?

Australian Home Minister Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, center, addresses the media with Sri Lanka's navy commander Piyal De Silva, left, and the head of Operation Australia's Sovereign Borders Major General Craig Furini.

Australian Home Minister Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, center, addresses the media with Sri Lanka's navy commander Piyal De Silva, left, and the head of Operation Australia's Sovereign Borders Major General Craig Furini. Photo: AAP

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is one of the most powerful operators in the re-elected Morrison government, but you wouldn’t know it if you took him at his word.

Everything that is contentious about his giant department has apparently nothing much to do with him.

Mr Dutton has emerged from his pre-election cone of silence – emboldened by his own and the government’s survival with various versions of the same formula to evade scrutiny.

“They’re matters for the department” was the way he batted away a series of finely targeted questions during his weekend Insiders interview.

It seems the government’s success making Labor the issue during the election campaign is now the template going forward but the Opposition is determined not to let Mr Dutton or the prime minister again get away with it as easily.

Shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally was quick to condemn the interview as a “train wreck” and a “mess” and the minister parading “his incompetence”.

The most telling evidence for her claim of incompetence was Mr Dutton’s revelation that the controversial Paladin contract for garrison services on Manus Island for asylum seekers and refugees is a “likelihood of continuation”.

It is continuing despite the sovereign government of Papua New Guinea saying it will not accept the company because of its shadowy structure and way of doing business.

But, of course, for Mr Dutton “it’s up to the department”.

So two weeks away from the current $420 million contract expiring, and so suspect the Auditor-General is investigating it, the same company is getting a nod and a wink without the international tendering process departmental secretary Mike Pezzullo told senate estimates he would have preferred.

Maybe this is one of the time bombs the Liberals thought they had planted for an incoming Labor government. It is now exploding in their own faces without any sensible explanation.

Sure departments do the negotiating but shouldn’t taxpayers expect the elected minister to insist on processes that don’t repeat past hugely questionable and expensive mistakes?

Labor can’t quite work out why Mr Dutton did the Sunday interview – he said he wanted no one on Nauru and Manus Island but revealed no plans how he would get them all off.

After Mr Dutton and the prime minister made a big song and dance over the dangers of the Medevac legislation – they said it would make it easier for rapists and criminals to get into Australia, the minister says he doesn’t know if that has in fact happened.

Annabel Crabb asked him how he couldn’t know the answer to that question. Mr Dutton dodged with the assurance “we don’t bring anyone to our country where we can’t mitigate the risk” – the very point proponents of the legislation made in its defence.

Some in the intelligence community saw the TV appearance as the minister serving notice he hasn’t given up on his empire building.

Bernard Keane in Crikey reports Home Affairs still wants to bring the military intelligence arm partially under its control. That’s the arm known as the Australian Signals Directorate.

Fourteen months ago News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst reported Mr Dutton’s department wanted to use the ASD to spy on Australians. It earned her a police raid after the election, for which the minister somewhat incredibly denies any responsibility.

Mr Dutton maintains the Smethurst report was wrong, while at the same time arguing the ASD should be able to assist police spying on Australians.

Now that his old adversaries George Brandis and Julie Bishop are no longer in cabinet to push back against his ambitions, Mr Dutton is making another play.

Those adversaries may have gone but Anthony Albanese has some advice for the minister, “Do your day job, mate – look after the interests of Australian taxpayers. Forget about the rhetoric”.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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