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Grattan on Friday: The government is compromising Malcolm Turnbull’s commitment to inclusion

Malcolm Turnbull has heaped praise on Peter Dutton’s performance while trying to avoid the flypaper of his controversial comments. Lukas Coch/AAP

Imagine Tony Abbott was still prime minister and Malcolm Turnbull remained his restless ministerial servant.

Abbott, having earlier abandoned his attempt to revise Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, decides – under the combined pressure from conservative colleagues and a couple of unfortunate and much-publicised cases – to put it back on the table.

Then, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton targets the Fraser government for its “mistakes” in bringing in Lebanese Muslims, some of whose descendants have been charged with terrorism offences.

What would Turnbull be saying?

Probably, despite having in the past expressed support for changing the section, he’d be warning that resurrecting the 18C debate would risk another ethnic backlash which would divert attention from key economic messages.

And he’d be arguing – albeit sotto voce – that Dutton, in visiting the sins of the grandchildren on the grandparents and the government which helped them, was dog-whistling as well as creating a distraction.

But Turnbull is no longer aspiring to the prime ministership but occupying it, and everything is different.

So although 18C was recently not on his agenda he has now referred it to a parliamentary committee. And he has heaped bountiful praise on Dutton for his general handling of his portfolio while trying to avoid the flypaper of his specific comments, which have stirred anger among the Muslim Lebanese and prompted death threats to parliament’s first Muslim woman MP Anne Aly, though she is not Lebanese.

Turnbull still talks inclusion but his government’s words and actions are compromising its commitment to it. Issues of race were an unfortunate and ugly theme through this penultimate parliamentary week.

The Dutton attack started last week when the minister was speaking to Andrew Bolt about a crime wave in Melbourne and the involvement of Sudanese people. Bolt referred to Fraser getting “wrong” the Lebanese intake, which was a humanitarian response to that country’s civil war and a matter of internal debate within the government at the time.

Dutton said it was the second or third generation who became foreign fighters. “The reality is that Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in, in the 1970s – we’re seeing that today and we need to be honest in having that discussion.”

In parliament this week, Dutton defended his remark with a single statistic: of the last 33 people charged with terrorism-related offences, 22 were from second- and third-generation Lebanese Muslim backgrounds.

Liberal sources report that Dutton’s comments have won a lot of support on his own side but also have been polarising within the Coalition.

There were signs of the latter at Tuesday’s Liberal Party and Coalition meetings, when moderate Liberal Trent Zimmerman, who is from Sydney, stressed the importance of maintaining the goodwill of ethnic communities and noted the progress the Liberals had made with the Chinese, Indians and Lebanese Muslims. Targeting a group was unhelpful, Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman and others worry about the impact of Dutton’s line in NSW Coalition-held seats with big ethnic communities. Quite apart from the substance of the issue, Bill Shorten – who flayed Dutton – would be alive to the potential fallout in western Sydney.

In the partyroom Zimmerman was slapped down by Victorian conservative Michael Sukkar, of Lebanese Maronite Christian background, who strongly supported Dutton.

It was deliberate that no-one rose to back Zimmerman. There was an informal agreement to let him run alone. The critics of Dutton wanted to lay down a marker, rather than trigger a brawl that would be damaging for Turnbull.

Colleagues believe one motive driving Dutton, a Queenslander, is a desire to shore up the defences against One Nation. He is said to be alarmed about the impact of the Hansonites in his home state.

It’s a view shared by others in the Liberal National Party: Attorney-General George Brandis was caught on an open mic warning about One Nation’s strength. Dutton’s own seat is volatile – his majority took a haircut in July.

As Dutton digs in against widespread criticism, the parliamentary joint committee on human rights is starting work on the 18C inquiry. It’s on a tight deadline, reporting by February 28. Submissions have opened and the committee will have a fortnight of public hearings in January covering three capital cities in each week, and also take evidence in Canberra.

The inquiry will be a sharp test of conservative versus moderate thinking in the Liberal Party. The government members of the committee, all Liberals, include senators Linda Reynolds and James Paterson, both of whom take a tough line against 18C, as well as lower house members Russell Broadbent and Julian Leeser, who oppose changing the section while favouring a better administrative process. The committee is chaired by Ian Goodenough, a supporter of putting different words into the act.

In accommodating the Liberal conservatives with the inquiry Turnbull has created a challenge for this minority of Liberal moderates on the committee. How they handle it remains to be seen.

The more that race issues are elevated and ethnic communities’ fears are fanned, as has happened in the Dutton controversy, the harder it could become to change 18C – already very difficult because of the Senate.

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