If this is supposed to be Peter Dutton’s warm and fuzzy side, why all the arrogance?

Having witnessed firsthand what can happen to a party when hubris and arrogance take control, Peter Dutton is rapidly spending up his electoral capital, writes David Fagan.

Casting an eye over Peter Dutton's job as Opposition Leader perhaps? If on Scott Morrison still had the authority to sign up for the role. Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Casting an eye over Peter Dutton's job as Opposition Leader perhaps? If on Scott Morrison still had the authority to sign up for the role. Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Peter Dutton pledged last year we would see a different side of the abrasive and unforgiving characteristics needed to accompany the tough guy portfolios he’d occupied over a decade of ministerial office.

Instead, he’s shown us an even more arrogant streak, unaccompanied by either necessity or authority. Pity, because that other side exists even if it’s too rarely visible.

His nuclear power play is accompanied by an arrogant insistence that everyone must get on board with a policy that is uncosted, has limited engineering or scientific backing and even more limited political support.

If the Australian electorate reacts to arrogance in its usual form, it will mean a short life for nuclear power and a shortened life for Dutton’s long and deeply held ambition to be our national leader.

Dutton’s approach is arrogant on five levels: Firstly, he insists that the elected party of government must change its policy to suit his preference. Ahem, he is not a member of that government which has longstanding antipathy to nuclear proliferation so where does he get off insisting it change its policy – something even longterm and high-ranking Labor members have not managed.

Secondly, he insists that state premiers fall into line with his view on a policy that is strictly their jurisdiction. He may have such authority over them if he was Prime Minister but has none as an Opposition Leader.

Thirdly, he just brushes off the scientific advice of the CSIRO as “discredited”. Discredited by whom? Peter Dutton, the scientist? Peter Dutton, the engineer or Peter Dutton, the politician? (I’d go with Alan Finkel, appointed by a coalition government as Chief Scientist from 2016 to 2020 and expert adviser on energy who simply ranks nuclear as a “non-starter”.)

Fourthly, there is his treatment of his party’s Queensland leader who is fighting to reinstate conservative government in this state without unnecessary controversy. Get on board with not one, but two nuclear power plants, he’s told.

And finally, there is his dismissal of the well-planned investment decisions that major corporations have made on energy transformation in the belief that there is a settled pathway to what will be in and what will be out by the next decade.

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Renewables have won that debate both here and around the Western world, the money is committed so what are businesses to do? Put their investment on hold until after a federal election and the ensuing five years or more of political battle to settle this for once and for all.

Like many of my generation, growing up with the threat of nuclear war, I have spent many years sceptical of nuclear, the long life (millenia) of its waste and the capacity for its feedstock to leach from the energy system to a weapon of mass destruction.

And like many, my view has softened but the missing element remains the safe storage of nuclear waste where there has been little scientific progress – certainly not the same degree of progress as we have witnessed on renewable energies and the batteries needed to even out their distribution.

This is what underpins social concern at nuclear and doesn’t justify the economic case for making it essential to our base-load energy needs as coal use depletes.

A debate on nuclear might be interesting but it will do little to deliver plentiful and affordable energy across this continent.

There is no doubt the energy transformation program is in trouble around the country – most of the major projects to replace coal-fired power stations are delayed and over budget. It’s unclear, however, why stopping the current work while we all step into line with Peter Dutton will speed things up or deliver a better outcome.

Bear in mind that Dutton has been a senior federal minister since 2013 and was part of a government consumed by debates over energy. Jumping to nuclear was never on their agenda.

But the Morrison Government was consumed by something else. That was the perceived arrogance of its leader. His my-way-or-the-highway approach had worn thin with Australians by the time he faced his second election in 2022.

While Dutton is in the ascendancy right now against a government struggling to find its way, he should note that warning, dial down the arrogance and dial up that so-far elusive other side of his character.

David Fagan is the author of Has the Luck Run Out? which maps the decline of trust in Australian institutions

This opinion piece first appeared in our sister publication InQueensland.

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