ANALYSIS: Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s ultimately disastrous defamation case against an unemployed refugee activist was a pure display of the hypocrisy of power, writes Joanna Psaros.

This week, MP Peter Dutton and refugee activist Shane Bazzi squared off once again in a Federal Court hearing appealing the judgment of last year’s defamation case controversy. The original decision saw the politician successfully sue then-unknown refugee activist Bazzi over a Tweet reading: “Peter Dutton is a rape apologist”.

And though Shane Bazzi was ultimately vindicated with this week’s judgement overturning that call, the proceedings nonetheless serve as a lesson that what we say can have serious consequences. But when will Peter Dutton face his own consequences? And in the context of rape culture, whose words should really be on trial?

From calling Brittany Higgins’ assault a “she said, he said” situation, to accusing refugee women of faking rape for the sake of entering Australia, Peter Dutton makes even Scott Morrison seem sensitive on the subject of sexual assault. Somewhat bafflingly, the presiding judge of Dutton v Bazzi (2021) found these statements were not examples of dismissing or minimising rape, and “entirely unrelated” to Dutton’s attitude on the subject.

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But while the denial of assault claims is widely considered to be both a symptom and cause of rape culture and misogyny, and though rape is actually a devastatingly underreported crime for which more than ninety per cent of offenders go unpunished, Peter Dutton has good reason to believe that some allegations are unfounded, malicious and self-serving. And that’s because he’s made them himself.  

In 2017, Australian Border Force commissioner and Peter Dutton’s former colleague Roman Quaedvlieg found himself in hot water following allegations he’d abused his position by securing a lucrative job for his then-secret girlfriend. Upon the commissioner’s dismissal, the ever-gracious Dutton expressed sympathy for Quaedvlieg and his family in a 2GB interview. “It’s not an easy situation and it’s not something that deserves to be across the front pages of the paper,” he told listeners.

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However, the relationship soon soured after the ex-commissioner gave evidence against Peter Dutton in an enquiry into the now-infamous au pair scandal. In retaliation, Dutton used parliamentary privilege to publicly discredit Quaedvlieg, accusing the man of “grooming” a girl thirty years younger than himself. So much for that graciousness.  

As Peter Dutton knew, Roman Quaedvlieg’s partner was an adult woman. Their relationship was entirely consensual and had nothing to do with the commissioner’s alleged misconduct. It’s therefore difficult to interpret his use of the word “grooming” (particularly while referencing the couples’ age gap) as anything other than an unfounded allegation of sexual abuse made for his own benefit.

It’s also exactly what he accused Shane Bazzi of doing; only far more serious and in front of the entire parliament and national media instead 1,221 random Twitter users.

For better or worse, the Dutton v Bazzi action is a timely reminder of the power of language, on both an individual and societal level. And more specifically, the language of sexual assault.

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In this space, words can empower (consider the usage of “survivor” instead of “victim”) as well as discredit (the dismissive phrase “she said, he said,” in an entirely random example.) And giving a name to certain concepts- such as grooming- is often essential in understanding abuse and hugely validating for those who experience it.

By using the word “groom” to discredit a political enemy, Peter Dutton did more than just slander Roman Quaedvlieg. He intentionally misused the term to describe a healthy, if unconventional, sexual relationship, robbing the word of its power and meaning, and subconsciously suggesting the existence of complicity and consent in abuse.

With the final round of the Dutton/ Bazzi battle now resolved, it’s been over a year since Shane Bazzi posted the six-word tweet that started it all. It was a tweet, Dutton claimed, that “went against who I am, my beliefs.” And he was absolutely right.

Peter Dutton does not believe in letting himself be criticised on a public platform, no matter how small. He does not believe in being held accountable for misogynistic fearmongering targeting Australia’s most vulnerable minority. He is not the type of person who’s the subject of slurs. He’s the type of person who slurs others.

Perhaps Peter Dutton does not excuse or support rape. Instead, he uses it as a political tool to exploit for his own self-interested ends.

About Joanna Psaros 15 Articles
Joanna Psaros is a Sydney-based freelance writer with a background in law. She has a master’s degree in law and international development and has written articles on everything from politics to pop culture for publications including Independent Australia, Green Left, and her own feminist blog Girls’ Locker Room Talk.

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