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Hardliner, China hawk elected Australian opposition leader

CANBERRA: Australia’s conservatives elected hardliner and China hawk Peter Dutton as the country’s new opposition leader Monday, an outcome many will see as a lurch to the right for his party.

Dutton came out swinging after accepting the top spot, saying the country’s newly elected Labor government was not “ready to govern and we are already seeing their inexperience on display”.

He promised his party will go to the next election, due in 2025, with a plan to “clean up Labor’s inevitable mess”.

Elected unopposed, Dutton inherits a Liberal party decimated by Australia’s May 21 election, when many of its long-time voters swung to independent candidates who promised action on climate change.

The new opposition leader will have to rebuild his shattered party and try to unite its fiercely divided moderate and conservative wings, with climate a key sticking point.

Dutton described himself Monday as “a very passionate believer” in Australia’s need for an “appropriate response” to emissions reduction.

A former police officer, Dutton made a name for himself in politics with tough talk and a penchant for headline-grabbing commentary.

As defence minister, he often likened China’s expansionist ambitions to Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war,” he said at the time.

“The issue of China under President Xi is the biggest issue our country will face in our lifetime,” he said Monday.

He also expressed regret for his decision to boycott a national apology to Aboriginal Australians forcibly separated from their families.

At the time he believed “the apology should be given when the problems were resolved and the problems are not resolved”, Dutton said, citing the welfare issues many Indigenous Australians face.

Dutton and his allies in the Liberal party have sought to play down his right-wing past since the election, saying Australians will see his softer side.

The new opposition leader said Monday his policies would be “squarely aimed at the forgotten Australians, in the suburbs, across regional Australia”.

Ousted Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who stepped down from the Liberal leadership after the election drubbing, offered his “full support” to Dutton on Monday.

Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last week praised Dutton, saying he had a better relationship with him than Morrison.

“Peter Dutton has never broken a confidence that I’ve had with him,” Albanese said.

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