16/03/2018 09:12 SAST | Updated 16/03/2018 11:23 SAST

Why Does Oz Minister Suddenly Care About White SA Farmers? Short Answer: He Doesn't

His comments had little to do with humanitarian conviction, and more to do with talking to his ideological base.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
Stefan Postles via Getty Images
Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

Why would Australia's home affairs minister choose to wedge himself in the middle of post-apartheid South Africa's complex politics, causing offence and a diplomatic mess that now needs to be cleaned up?

The likely answer is he didn't really care.

Peter Dutton, a controversial conservative figure in Australia's body-politic for his hardline immigration positions, was likely focused purely on domestic politics when he offered to explore visas for "persecuted" white farmers.

The Queensland-based member of parliament has recently become head of the newly created home affairs department — a portfolio giving Dutton vast oversight of Australia's premier intelligence agencies, agencies who would no doubt have prepared a briefing for him on what is happening in South Africa, had he asked.

But Dutton's comments came in response to a series of articles and columns in NewCorp's Daily Telegraph, while the debate has been barracked-on by ideological stablemate Sky News. South Africans immigrants to Australia are concerned for the well-being of their relatives.

One commentator on Sky suggested South Africa should be banned from international sporting events as "punishment", while others argue there's a far-right-wing genesis to the entire campaign making issue of the persecution.

Regardless, Dutton is getting his information from somewhere and it prompted him to speak out.

Members of the South African farming community and civil society organisations prepare to march to the Union Buildings to raise awareness on farm attacks on November 25, 2017 in Pretoria, South Africa.

"I do think, on the information that I've seen, people do need help and they need help from a civilised country like ours," Dutton said.

Since then there has been a demand for a retraction by Pretoria, but Dutton hasn't commented again.

Amid the diplomatic upset, Dutton has received some support from the SA based AfriForum, with Deputy CEO Alana Bailey saying Dutton's comments were a serious charge against the South African government.

Canberra's High Commissioner to South Africa, Adam McCarthy, has been hauled in for meetings by South African officials, and foreign minister Julie Bishop was left to put out the diplomatic fire with Australia's fellow Commonwealth nation on Friday.

Bishop reportedly wouldn't comment on McCarthy being hauled into the meeting with officials, but she pointed out Australia already has a humanitarian visa intake for South Africans and any application would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

"I am working with the home affairs minister to ascertain if any changes are needed to our existing offshore humanitarian visa programme," she told journalists.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stopped short of defending Dutton's comments on Friday, insisting Australia has a non-discriminatory humanitarian programme.

GULSHAN KHAN via Getty Images
Crosses are planted on a hillside at the White Cross Monument, each one marking a white farmer who has been killed in a farm murder in Ysterberg, near Langebaan, South Africa.

Amid the diplomatic upset, Dutton has received some support from the SA-based AfriForum, with deputy CEO Alana Bailey saying Dutton's comments were a serious charge against the South African government.

But his comments continue to cause consternation at home, with opposition leader Bill Shorten arguing Australia's immigration support should not be based on race.

"We have a nondiscriminatory immigration system," Shorten said.

"It doesn't matter who you are, if you're facing persecution, you have the right to apply for protection.

"I don't know what's motivated Dutton to make those comments, you'd have to ask him. I don't agree with a lot of what Peter Dutton says."

Dutton has received the backing of Australia's new deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, who said while he appreciated the situation's delicacy, it was a "little bit rich to always go asking ministers to retract comments".

"Relations between the two nations are very strong," he said.

The strength of that relationship will certainly be tested over the coming days.