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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp

Albanese’s asylum policy is almost identical to the Coalition’s – Dutton’s attacks are manifesting a crisis

Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton in parliament
‘It is fair to observe that the biggest difference when Labor is in government is that the opposition leader holds a megaphone and says the prime minister and his (substantially identical) policies are weak.’ Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

After a week of the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, being pummelled for Labor’s handling of releases from immigration detention the arrival of a boat of asylum seekers was obviously bad news.

But the job of journalists is not to tally whether events are good or bad for the government and the opposition leader, Peter Dutton.

It is to make sense of these events and their causes as best we can.

In this case, we have a duty to explain that despite an uptick in asylum seeker boat journeys since Labor was elected, as best we can tell these are not rationally connected to any change in policy and certainly have nothing to do with releases from immigration detention required by a high court ruling.

First, Labor’s policy on asylum seeker arrivals is almost identical to the Coalition’s.

There is bipartisan support for Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB). That includes: turning back boats where safe to do so, offshore detention of asylum seekers on Nauru, and a guarantee that nobody who came to Australia by boat after 2013 would settle here.

There is one difference: Labor abolished temporary protection visas, but these and their replacement were not given to unauthorised maritime arrivals who arrived after the 2013 deadline.

So it is a difference, but not a relevant one for assessing whether policies are a “pull” factor for people departing on boats almost a decade later.

The Albanese government unsuccessfully tried to clear the regional processing centre in Nauru but there was never any suggestion it would be shut down.

In fact, asylum seekers were taken there just months later from people smuggling ventures in October and November. Offshore detention is fully operational, and there were 15 of Australia’s asylum seekers in Nauru as of 12 February.

Second, there is no connection between asylum seeker boats and the high court’s ruling in the NZYQ case that indefinite detention is unlawful where there is “no real prospect” of it becoming practical to deport the non-citizen “in the reasonably foreseeable future”.

The uptick in boats predates the court’s 8 November decision. Seven boats were turned back or the asylum seekers onboard them returned in the first nine months since Labor’s election from May 2022 to March 2023. That compared with two to three vessels a year from 2016-17 to 2019-20.

As Giles noted in November, none of the people released as a result of the NZYQ decision had arrived in Australia since the election of the Albanese government.

According to home affairs department documents tendered in court, all but a handful had been in detention for less than a decade, an indication that it was visa cancellations during the Coalition years that took them in.

The majority are owed protection by Australia, indicating they are just a small fraction of the tens of thousands of people who flew to Australia legally on other visas before claiming asylum onshore – an issue that plagued the Coalition and has continued under Labor.

Boat arrivals a few weeks after the high court decision and again after a fractious fortnight of parliament is just bad timing.

Dutton is doing his best to argue that people smugglers sense “weakness” and that detecting this quality gives them a product to sell. But the differences between Labor and the Coalition are more a matter of perception than substance.

Could the optics, the presentation of nearly identical policies as if they were relevantly different, itself be the pull factor?

On Friday Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, the commander of OSB, seemed to be saying yes.

He warned that “any alternate narrative” to the fact that the OSB mission remains the same “will be exploited by criminal people smugglers to deceive potential irregular immigrants and convince them to risk their lives and travel to Australia by boat”.

Dutton is so far undeterred, and ran the same lines on Saturday and Sunday notwithstanding that warning.

As political scientists investigating the cause of an uptick of boats under Labor, we shouldn’t confine ourselves to weighing the marginal differences between policy.

It is fair to observe that the biggest difference when Labor is in government is that the opposition leader holds a megaphone and says the prime minister and his (substantially identical) policies are weak.

Sections of the media are doing a good job holding Dutton to account for this political strategy; others are happy, as ever, to be the megaphone.

Re-energised from his opposition to the defeated Indigenous voice referendum, Dutton seems more than happy to will Operation Sovereign Borders to failure.

More boats, more votes. We are witnessing the opposition leader manifesting a crisis as another stepping stone to the Lodge.

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