“Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?”
–Gandalf the Grey
“As long as I'm alive, I want 'em. But they're not to cry out, and they're not to be rescued. Bind their legs!”
–Uglúk, Uruk-hai Captain
What Do You Smell?
There’s a scene in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) where a group of orcs are transporting their hobbit hostages across the plains of Rohan. The band comprises Sauron’s soldiers from Mordor and Saruman’s Uruk-hai from Isengard. The orcs stop to rest and the question of food arises. “We’ve had nothing but maggoty bread for three stinking days!” one says. “Yeah, why can’t we have some meats?” replies an orc credited as ‘Snaga’. His gaze settles on their captives: “What about them? They’re fresh!”
While the Uruk-hai captain Uglúk explains “those are not for eating!” Snaga creeps up behind the two halflings, knife raised: “just a mouthful, a bit off the flank!”
Here I pause my two tape LoTR:TTT The Extended Edition VHS. Something about Snaga’s shaky menace strikes me as familiar. The pinched lips, the round skull, the shifty eyes: he is a Weta-Workshop Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection. Unchecked, unbowed, and unforgiving, there is something decidedly monstrous in the way the Member for Dickson carries himself. Photo after photo shows him lurking in the shadows like some Gundabad war chief.
But his monstrousness goes beyond his cartoonish grim visage. Despite scandal after bungle after scandal, Dutton seems destined to hold dominion over the Commonwealth. He has moved Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition to the far-right with the ease of an au-pair pushing a bawling baby in a pram. With the creation of the Department of Home Affairs in December 2017, he became one of the most powerful men in the nation, with an accumulation of strength that has progressed unchecked and is now spreading beyond the department’s ill-kept murky borders.
In the age of Trump, Dutton is not so much a projection of conservatism’s future as a paragon of its present. What Saruman would describe as a “ruined and terrible form of life” has now been “perfected.” Dutton leads the establishment fringe in the post-Abbott era: you will not know pain, you will not know fear, you will taste raw onion.
People treat Dutton as though he sprang fully formed from the pit of Gorgoroth itself. As if he is a riddle in the dark, spoken in a wet-mouthed whisper. We are too scared to ask what’s in his pocketsess.
Well, speak friend and enter: like an Elvish riddle on a Dwarven door all it takes is the simplest paradigm shift to see the Ents for the trees. Call me Thorin Oakenshield, because I hold the key to grokking our would-be future PM. To understand Dutton you just have to understand this simple truth:
The age of man is over.
The time of the orc has come.
Through popular culture and the film adaptations, most of us have a clear idea of how an orc looks and acts, just as we have a rough idea of how Peter Dutton looks and acts thanks to Sky News and Janet Albrechtson puff-pieces.
The origin of orcs is often overlooked. Tolkien posited various creation myths for orcs. The best known and most commonly accepted comes from The Silmarillion (1977), which hinted that they were Elves transformed by Melkor’s “slow arts of cruelty…in envy and mockery”. Another theory appears in The History of Middle-earth, a 12-volume series published posthumously, which states that orcs were “…bred by Melkor of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal”. Here the orcs are described like machines of war, which in a sense, they are.
In a letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien offered this description of orcs: “They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes.” He goes on to explain that “the Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men”. As corruptions, be it through torture or interbreeding, orcs maintained a recognizable humanity. Christopher Tolkien explains in Morgoth’s Ring (the tenth volume of The History of Middle-earth), “…my father’s final view of the matter: orcs were bred from men.”
There are conflicting views about the origins of orcs. In one, they are corrupted reflections; in another, they are manufactured projections. What is important is not so much how they were made, but what they were made to represent. Tolkien, a World War I veteran who fought in the Battle of the Somme, witnessed industrial warfare firsthand. Recuperating from trench fever in 1917, he began writing fables about dwarves, “gnomes”, and orcs. Many years later, in a letter to his son who was then fighting in World War II, Tolkien wrote: “I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction…only in real life they are on both sides, of course.”
In Tolkien’s universe, Evil is unable to create anything new. Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey states that “though [Tolkien] became increasingly concerned over the implications of orcs in his story, and tried out several explanations for them, their analogousness for humanity always remained clear”. Although Tolkien grew uneasy with it, the corrupted elf/man theory stuck because it allowed orcs to be simple ciphers for the man-made horrors of the 20th century. Evil lacks empathy, and thus imagination. As Frodo explains “…the Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.”
The orcs are the result of Evil’s failure of imagination. Peter Dutton is the result of Australia’s.
Born in 1970, Peter Dutton, son of Bruce, grew up in the heats and slime of the Northern Brisbane suburb of Boondall. Flat-nosed and sallow-skinned, it is impossible to determine whether his heart was born of, or crafted with, granite, but his father was a bricklayer, so granite was probably at some point present. His working-class family sent Dutton, eldest of five, to St Paul’s School, a private Anglican college in Bald Hills. In 1988 an 18-year-old Dutton joined the Young Liberals. In 1989 he unsuccessfully ran for the state seat of Lytton, and by 1990 he was chair of their Bayside branch.
That same year he graduated from the Queensland Police Academy, having begun his training at the height of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Police Misconduct. The Inquiry would see the deposition of Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson and the jailing of three former ministers, as well as a knighted police commissioner. Like Aragorn’s time ranging for the Dunedein, his time in the QPF would shape him as well as his policies. “I was a police officer at a young age and in those formative years I’d seen good and bad in that job. So I do think that shapes your world view,” he recently told Guardian Australia.
Terry O’Gormann, who cross-examined ‘Uncle Joh’ in the Fitzgerald inquiry, told that same Guardian reporter that Dutton is “…the unofficial national police minister.” In his Inside Story article ‘Prime Minister in Waiting,’ Norman Abjornsen recalls an interaction with a senior minister at an airport, to whom Abjornsen quipped that Dutton ‘still talked like a Queensland cop, impassive and deadpan’. The minister replied, “yes, and he thinks like one too.”
After nine years working in the Drug Squad, the Sex Offenders Squad, and the National Crime Authority, Dutton completed his Bachelor of Business at QUT and joined his father’s building business. They founded Dutton Holdings in 2000 (now Dutton Building and Development). Dutton currently owns six properties, including a $2.3 million mansion on Queensland’s “Millionaire’s Row.”
From the son of a bricklayer and childcare worker to cop to real-estate mogul to potential Prime Minister, Dutton’s life traces the heroic arc of the self-made man: the central protagonist in modern conservatism’s mythology. He is the fantasy of the “aspirational conservative” realised. A post-Menzies Gil-galad wielding a determinist spear; an epic Elven ballad penned by Ayn Rand. Like the orcs, he has “maintained a certain level of recognisable humanity”, but also like the orcs, he can’t help but resemble the intention behind his own creation. Dutton is the continuation of the Australian conservative tradition – that which defined Uncle Joh’s reign, precipitated the rise of John Howard, and formed the foundational logic of Australia’s refugee policy.
A tradition that schooled Dutton in the ‘slow arts of cruelty.’
Drums In The Deep (they are coming)
In 2001, the year of 9/11, the Tampa Affair, and the cinematic release of The Fellowship of the Ring, a 30-year-old Dutton was elected to the seat of Dickson. His defeat of former Australian Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot was an ambush worthy of the orcs who slew Isildur at the Gladden Fields, and for this he was swiftly rewarded. In his maiden speech to Parliament, he said that as a police officer he had seen “the sickening behaviour displayed by people who, frankly, barely justify their existence in our sometimes over tolerant society.”
By 2004 Dutton was workforce participation minister, one of the youngest ministers since Federation. He rapidly shot up the ranks. In 2006 he was appointed Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Revenue. In 2007 he boycotted the apology to the stolen generations, stating he did not believe it would “to deliver tangible outcomes to kids who are being raped and tortured in communities in the 21st century”. A year later Turnbull made him Shadow Minister for Health.
During his rapid ascent to power, Australia would enter both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The reign of the Great Goblin (Howard) ended, but his legacy lingered. The hysteria around refugees – aka “boat people” – would continue to grow. The Rudd Government maintained Australia’s gulag archipelago.
The Shadow loomed.
Dutton had visited Ground Zero just prior to taking office. America’s open wound spoke to his sense of injustice, his outrage. There, he framed his career within the context of a crusade. The Denethor-like paranoia which followed the attacks, and the subsequent desire for revenge and reclamation, gave Dutton direction. The Balrog awoke, the smoke took shape. Dutton’s rhetoric began to match, even outpace, the reaction politics of the post-9/11 West. “When does the right of privacy for the individual start to impinge on the common good of society?” he asked in his maiden speech.
When did Australia abandon reason for madness?
The Scum Tried to Knife Me
As with Sauron’s return to Dol Guldur, Dutton’s rise to power wasn’t all smooth sailing and necromancy.
Tony Abbott appointed Dutton Minister for Health (and Sport) in 2013, a job he kept for a little over a year. It was Dutton who tried to force the $7 GP co-payment on the public, like Uglúk forcing the black draught down Merry’s gullet. Orcs don’t know much about medicine. A 2015 poll by Australian Doctor magazine voted Dutton “the worst health minister in living history”. Abbott made Dutton Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in a cabinet reshuffle on December 21, 2014. The Nazgûl finally had their fell-beast. No more fuck ups.
In 2015 Senator Hanson-Young accused Peter Dutton of spying on her when she visited Nauru. Dutton retorted that “she’s got a track record of making these things up”. It was later confirmed that Wilson Security and the Immigration Department, and perhaps Crebain crows from Dunland, had indeed spied on Senator Young.
Later that year, on September 11, an open mic caught Dutton joking with Tony Abbott about rising sea levels and Pacific Island Nations: “Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”. A comment not dissimilar from the orc Grishnákh’s suggestion that Merry and Pippin “don’t need” their legs. Dutton sided with Abbott during the 2015 leadership spill; he was after all the Azog to Abbott’s Bolg. Although the “scum tried to knife” him, Turnbull kept Dutton on in the front bench. It was a move that may yet prove fateful for Turnbull, who has preceded over a Coalition where alliances are as fraught as that between the orcs of Mordor, the Uruk-hai of Isengard, and the Lyle’s of Shit-eât.
Tolkien wrote of orcs that “if Morgoth and his agents were far away, they might neglect his commands. They hated each other and often fought among themselves, to the detriment of Morgoth's plans”. Such is the chaos of the Coalition post-Howard. It is a chaos that Dutton, like the orc Gorbag, has artfully thrived in.*
(…other than that time he sent a text calling Samantha Maiden “the mad fucking witch” to Samantha Maiden.)
You Will Taste Man Flesh
Tolkien wrote that orcs were “so corrupted that they were pitiless, and there was no cruelty or wickedness that they would not commit; but this was the corruption of independent wills, and they took pleasure in their deeds.”
Most orcs are interchangeable: Shagrat, Grishnákh, Gorbag, Uglúk, Lurtz – dumb snarling faces that spit out hatred through gnashing teeth. Ruddock, Vanstone, Evans, Morrison, Dutton – Australia’s immigration ministers are much the same. Dutton took to the Immigration portfolio like a warg to horse flesh. “I enjoy it a lot,” he recently told the Sydney Morning Herald. He takes pleasure in his deeds.
That visit to Ground Zero, and a decade of the West’s self-perpetuating xenophobia, cemented his zealous self-assurance that his way was the righteous way. To oppose it was to side with the enemy. “Where we are guided by principles and objectives,” he said on entering Parliament, “the others in Australia have adopted this third way of operation, in which the end result is that they now stand for nothing. They have lost.”
Those guiding principles are as coolly simple as an orc’s. To Dutton, the mission to “stop the boats” was handled with the same ruthless efficiency of Lurtz’s mission to “find the halflings”. Both Lurtz and Dutton had no room for “misguided compassion”. Dutton inherited a violent system and ran it as doggedly as the Uruk-hai berserker who throws himself, torch in hand, into the bomb beneath Helm’s Deep. A few arrows, be they from Legolas or First Dog On The Moon, would not slow him down. The Sydney Morning Herald could run as many “Jihads” against him as they liked – this orc was going to blow himself up and take that mad lefty Haldir with him. If the utility of a system is solely violence – be it explosive or institutional – the only way to work efficiently is with the single-mindedness and amorality of an orc.
The rape of 23-year-old Somalian refugee known as Abyan, protests crushed by violent reprisal, reckless medical negligence, several deaths in detention, and a string of attempted suicides (the latest by a boy as young as 10) all took place under the watchful eye of Peter Dutton. In Appendix F of the third volume of Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King (1955), Tolkien explains that orcs stole other languages and “perverted it to their own liking,” and that orc speech sounded at all times “full of hate and anger”. In 2015 seven pregnant asylum seekers refused medical treatment on Nauru, urging Turnbull and Dutton to bring them to Australia. Dutton promised upgrades to healthcare facilities, but told 2GB that the government would “not be taken for mugs.”
Just prior to the 2016 election Dutton told Sky News presenter Paul Murray that many refugees “won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, no question about that”. It was a base bit of racist rhetoric from Dutton, who usually couches his bigotry in the poison tongue of the protector. What had been subtext in the post-Howard era briefly shone through like a vein of Mithril along a dark cave wall.
Turnbull defended him, stating that Dutton “is an outstanding Immigration Minister”. Dutton became another unflushable turd in the Prime Minister’s increasingly clogged plumbing. Their relationship not unlike that of Saruman and the Uruk-hai Lurtz: Dutton the willing boogeyman of the far-right in a party that loves that movements’ product if not its brand. That year’s election would see Dutton’s margin “take a little tumble off the cliff”, falling from 6.7% to 1.6%, holding Dickson with a margin of less that 3,000 votes (i.e. less than 1/3 of the orc host gathered at Helm’s Deep.)
In 2016 Iranian refugee Omid Masoumali committed suicide via self-immolation in a desperate attempt to draw attention to the plight of those imprisoned in purgatory on Nauru. A year later, after 50 refugees left Nauru for the US, a frustrated Dutton told Ray Hadley that somebody once told him “the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags [was] up on Nauru, waiting for people to collect when they depart.”
He went on to say:
“The reality is that these people had, at the generosity of the Australian taxpayer, received an enormous amount of support for a long period of time.”
There are countless examples of Dutton’s dog-whistle blaring like an orc horn over the barbarisms of our detention system. He is glib to a fault, an orc indifferently giving the order to catapult decapitated heads over enemy walls. Despite all this calamity, Dutton’s apologies are few and far between. Those he’s given are laced with self-pity, reluctance, and deferred blame. Take his recent statement regarding the latest incident on Nauru: “even the Biggest, can make mistakes,” he told the ABC, “something nearly slipped you say. I say, something has slipped. And we've got to look out. Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don't forget: the enemies don't love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we're done too.”
(NOTE: That was either Peter Dutton or the orc Gorbag – unable to confirm.)
An orc cannot apologise for being an orc. They are bred for a purpose. Cruelty is part of the orc’s job description, so the job and the orc are indistinguishable. The reason the Shadow of Mordor games give orcs names like “Tugog Man-Breaker” is because their function forms their identity. The same is true of “Dutton Boat-Stopper.”
To Dutton and his predecessors Australia’s immigration policy is, like the road to Sammath Naur, paved with good intentions. The Immigration Minister is a protector as much as he is an enforcer. “Operation Sovereign Borders has brought maritime people smuggling to a standstill and saved countless lives,” Dutton said, marking “1000 days of strong and secure borders.”
But as Gimli, son of Glóin, once observed, when listening to the words of Saruman “in the language of Orthanc, help means ruin, and saving means slaying, that is plain.”
A Palantir is a Dangerous Tool
The immense power gifted to Australia’s Immigration Minister by the Migration Act of 1958 is, frankly, Sauron-esque. With the creation of the Home Affairs Office last year, Dutton has managed to expand his dominion beyond the already fragile outlands of accountability.
Former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Evans once remarked: “I have formed the view that I have too much power…I am uncomfortable with that not just because of a concern about playing God but also because of the lack of transparency and accountability…what I thought was to be a power to be used in rare cases has become very much the norm.”
This is not unlike Gandalf and Saruman’s debate over the power of the Palantir.
“A Palantir is a dangerous tool, Saruman,” Gandalf councils.
“Why? Why should we fear to use it?” his superior retorts.
“They are not all accounted for, the lost seeing stones,” Gandalf explains, “We do not know who else may be watching!”
Like Saruman and his Palantir, Dutton has wielded his new authority with the singular thinking of the overpowered: why should we fear to use it? Who cares who is watching? So he took to the Department of Immigration the way the orcs took to Fangorn Forrest. With an axe.
In his recent feature for The Monthly, ‘Dutton’s Dark Victory’, James Button discusses how the old Department of Immigration could be divided into the two branches of “inclusion and exclusion”; what staffers nicknamed “Disneyland” and “The Dark Side”. Writer Henry Martin, who interviewed officials from the department’s first forty years, labeled those deciding the fate of Australia’s potential citizens as “angels and arrogant gods.”
Being the spawn of god – Valar Melkor himself – Dutton seems to prefer the latter. In a speech made to the Trans-Tasman Circle in October 2017, Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection Michael Pezzullo made reference to AC/DC, The Leviathan, and at length, The Lord of the Rings. He recounted Frodo’s journey for “those of you who know the books preferably, the movies if you must”. He talked about how upon their return, Frodo and company were shunned by the other Hobbits for seeming “a bit above themselves.” Pezzullo continued by chiding the Shire Hobbits (I MUST STRESS THAT THIS IS VERY REAL) for “not knowing the sacrifices that have been endured to keep them safe”. He lamented that the Hobbits were woefully unaware that evil was “on the borders of the Shire, seeking to penetrate their very comfortable, safe, and blissfully ignorant existence.” He then rambled on about an emerging “dark universe” and “the end of days.”
To Pezzullo, Frodo and friends were a kind of border force, unfairly maligned by a naïve and ungrateful public.
Only a lunatic would go to such lengths to link Australia’s immigration policy to The Lord of the Rings like this. Pezzullo had forgotten that in the books (“preferably”) Frodo and friends return to a Shire overrun by orcs, led by ‘Sharky’ aka Saruman the White. Our heroes find themselves stateless. Frodo embarked on this journey – where he was smuggled across borders by boat, barter, and disguise by a fanatic, a guerilla leader, and an addict – so his friends and kinfolk would be spared this very fate. It was not the shapeless void of Sauron that destroyed the Shire, but the self-certain Saruman: who convinced himself that the only way to overcome the Dark Lord was to supersede him, and who consequently collapsed under the weight of his rapidly accumulated and unchecked power. It is not the Hobbits that resent Frodo’s return, but the orcs that bare the White Hand.
Fouler Things than Orcs
I was ten and at the height of my LotR mania when John Howard announced: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. My parents, particularly my mother, raised me to view Howard as the Big Bad. A Great Eye with thick spectacles, he came to embody all that was defective in the Australian character. He had slain Gil-galad (Keating), he had returned from defeat, he had slapped the GST on Old-Toby pipe-weed. He was a Dark Lord in an Akubra and jogging-gear.
I would often retreat into LotR as a way to understand the world around me. I remember reading the chapter where Gandalf falls to the Balrog, a week after my grandmother had died, feeling inconsolable with grief. My grandmother, once John Curtin’s secretary at The Daily Worker, had been one half of my moral compass, the other had been Gandalf. They both taught me the value of empathy, and how one man’s pity may rule the fate of many.
As an adult, I see Dutton, Howard, our refugee policy, and the great Shadow that darkens them as the nation’s norm. The web of violence and cruelty is now inextricably attached to who we are as Australians. We have become Shelob, snagged in her own mess. Our borders are kept safe by our white nationalism. Be it fear of African gangs, or a sudden concern for South African farmers, our press, policies and politicians reveal a nation who wear the White Hand with pride.
I have drawn on orcs and Middle Earth because the nature of this Evil is so immense that it has become fantastical. Tolkien’s descriptions of orcs remained inscrutable because the wickedness they symbolized was inscrutable. The orcs are simple ciphers for difficult times.
From Abbott and Trump, to Latham and Milo, to Uncle Joh and Dutton, there and back again: we are living in the time of the orc. But orcs are merely vessels for grander schemes. Orcs like Dutton are a small part of a meaner darkness buried deep within our national conscience. And as Gandalf made clear, “there are fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
A LotR wiki tells me that Snaga is actually “the name of the lowest or lesser breed of orc. They were used as slaves, warg riders, messengers, and were lower in ranking and size than the Uruks, Morannon orcs, Orcs of Minas Morgul, and other larger ones in Mordor.”
Staring at the frozen image of Snaga on my TV, I suddenly realise why he reminds me of Peter Dutton. It’s not his egg-like head, it’s not the smile that’s in fact a snarl, it’s not his hungry eyes. It’s his stupidity – the kind that is unique to the cruel. If Snaga ate the hobbits (even their legs) he’d immediately have to reckon with his smallness in the grand scheme of things. He’d have to challenge Uglúk, the captain of the other faction, but beyond that, the will of Saruman, and potentially, Sauron himself.
Dutton and Snaga are both monsters powered by an unwavering prowess for monstrousness. Ultimately, what makes them orcs is their subservience. To fail at that would be to fail at being an orc: all good orcs, the ones that make it to the top that is, know this.
I press play. Snaga is immediately decapitated by Uglúk, who roars:
“Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!”
The orcs cheer and Snaga is devoured.
Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian living in Fremantle with the other Shire-folk. He talks to his dog about Evel Knievel and his stalled There Will Be Blood musical. His work has been published here and elsewhere, translated into several languages, and mainly focuses on mental illness and Waluigi. In 2017 he released a stand-up album, ‘Barely Bombings,’ which touches on everything from Boko Haram to the Care Bears, and all that’s in between.