Australia's hawkish new defence minister Peter Dutton

·2-min read
Peter Dutton has made a political career out of going to war

Hardline ex-cop Peter Dutton was tapped as Australia's next defence minister Monday, putting one of the country's most combative politicians in command of a fast-spending department preoccupied with Beijing's rise.

The 50-year-old former Queensland detective has made a political career out of going to war.

During two decades in parliament, he has gleefully trashed opponents, overseen a controversial refugee policy, riled Australia's close allies and -- more recently -- clashed with the Chinese government.

Hawkish and deeply ambitious, Dutton in 2018 helped oust moderate prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a party coup, but was ultimately seen as too conservative to take over the party leadership himself.

Since then, he has focused on securing his grip on the powerful mega-portfolio of home affairs -- which brings together the federal police, border force and spy agencies under a single national security umbrella.

He steps into the defence position after a shake-up brought on after rape allegations in the country's halls of power saw two senior ministers demoted.

The move was "the next natural stepping stone in his political career", according to John Blaxland, professor of international security at the Australian National University.

Dutton will become Australia's sixth defence minister in eight years, taking over as the country's military bulks up capabilities in response to a more assertive Beijing.

Canberra has earmarked Aus$270 billion ($206 billion) for new and upgraded defence power, focusing on the purchase of high-tech weapons that could strike targets thousands of kilometres away.

"I expect he will be doubling down on force expansion and capability acquisition decisions," Blaxland told AFP, adding that for Dutton the defence portfolio is gaining "centrality in government policymaking".

"In the thick of it is where he wants to be," Blaxland said.

As Canberra's relations with Beijing have deteriorated in recent years, Dutton has lambasted China for alleged cyberattacks on Australia and "theft" of intellectual property, while saying its Belt and Road Initiative is a "very real" threat.

He will also have to reckon with the fallout from an inquiry that found Australian forces had committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

- 'Taking out the trash' -

Dutton has taken on critics of Australia's indefinite detention of asylum seekers in offshore centres -- though he now points to freeing children from the facilities as one of his achievements.

He sparked a backlash in 2018 by claiming people in Melbourne were "scared to go out to restaurants" because of "African gang violence".

The same year, he lobbied for white South African farmers to be resettled in Australia on humanitarian grounds, saying were being persecuted and "need help from a civilised country".

Dutton also stirred controversy by joking about the plight of Pacific island nations beset by rising sea levels, and angered New Zealand by deporting Kiwis convicted of crimes -- a process he described as "taking out the trash".