Hawkish ex-defence minister to lead Australia's opposition Liberal Party

A former Queensland police officer, Mr Dutton comes from the right-wing faction of the Liberal National Coalition. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Former defence minister Peter Dutton has been elected unanimously to lead Australia's centre-right Liberal Party after its election defeat, potentially foreshadowing a shift to the right in the country's largest conservative party.

A former Queensland police officer, Mr Dutton comes from the right-wing faction of the Liberal National Coalition and developed a reputation as a strident China hawk in his time as Australia's first home affairs minister and later defence minister under then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Former environment minister Sussan Ley was elected as his deputy.

Speaking after the vote, Mr Dutton said a prime minister needs to have strength of character and relentless resolve to lead the country through good and bad times. "They are among the character traits that I bring to this job," he said.

Moderate former treasurer Josh Frydenberg was considered Mr Dutton's main competition for the leadership, but he lost his seat to a pro-climate action independent challenger at the election, leaving Mr Dutton unchallenged.

Mr Dutton previously accused the Labour Party, under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, of being too "weak" to stand up to Beijing, and said the only way for Australia to keep peace in the Indo-Pacific is to "prepare for war".

Under Mr Dutton, Australia's spending on defence rose to its highest levels in years. The former defence minister has promised to lead the Liberal National Coalition from the political centre, as it looks to rebuild itself after the 2022 loss.

He has the support of former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott, who told The Australian newspaper in the past week that Mr Dutton had "courage, convictions and temperament".

Australia's new leader Mr Albanese said he has a stronger relationship with Mr Dutton than he did with former prime minister Morrison, and that he would like to work together to form a bipartisan consensus on important issues to Australia.

Mr Dutton brings with him a number of controversies that could undermine his leadership.

In 2008, he refused to support then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations - indigenous Australians who were forcibly taken from their families as part of a government-supported programme.

In 2015, when he was immigration minister, Mr Dutton was caught on a microphone joking about the effect of climate change on Pacific islands with Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison. He later apologised for his remarks.

The opposition junior coalition - the National Party of Australia - also opted for a change by electing a new leader in Mr David Littleproud on Monday, replacing former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce.

Mr Littleproud was the deputy leader of the National party and served as agriculture minister in the former coalition government.

"This is the proudest day of my professional life," Mr Littleproud told reporters in Canberra after winning the party room vote. "The National Party today starts its journey towards 2025, with a vibrant team, ready to articulate the policies that are important to regional and rural Australia."

Mr Littleproud added that the party will continue to draw on the experience of former deputy prime minister Joyce, "to build that bridge of unity and purpose, to make sure that regional and rural Australia isn't forgotten".

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