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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp Chief political correspondent

Clare O’Neil accuses Peter Dutton of telling ‘easily disprovable lies’ over border force funding

Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton and Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil
Home affairs minister Clare O’Neil says discrepancy in funding claims with opposition leader Peter Dutton ‘not one politician’s word against another’ but ’a matter of fact’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Clare O’Neil has accused Peter Dutton of telling “easily disprovable lies” about funding for Operation Sovereign Borders, after the opposition leader’s claims of cuts were rejected by the Australian Border Force commissioner.

On Monday Michael Outram contradicted Dutton’s claim that Labor had cut $600m from OSB, saying ABF’s funding had never been higher since it was established in 2015.

The arrival of a group of 39 asylum seekers in remote Western Australia has reignited a war of words between Labor and the Coalition over border protection, with O’Neil and Anthony Albanese now openly accusing Dutton of encouraging dangerous boat journeys by misleadingly claiming Labor has watered down OSB.

Albanese told reporters in Perth that “when Peter Dutton said that people smugglers listen to what the government says, they also listen to what the bloke who wants to be the alternative prime minister” says.

“His irresponsible comments, they can be seen as nothing other than encouraging, encouraging this activity. And he needs to be held accountable for that.”

O’Neil told Radio National on Tuesday that OSB had “swung into action in record time and the people in question were taken immediately to Nauru”.

O’Neil said that Dutton had been “wandering around the country in a somewhat unhinged manner in the last few days telling what are easily disprovable lies about what is going on with operations sovereign borders”.

“Funding has increased by $470m – we have invested almost half a billion dollars in this operation compared to what the previous government was looking to spend.”

On Monday Dutton claimed Labor has “taken $600m out of border protection” and “reduced the amount of surveillance flights”.

The claim is based on projecting the 2022-23 funding level for OSB for a further four years, an accounting method that ignores that Labor plans to spend more in each of these years than was projected in the Coalition’s last budget.

The Albanese government spent $252m more on border enforcement and border management this year than was projected, and plans to spend cumulatively $470m more in the four years to 2025-26.

Outram said: “Border force funding is currently the highest it’s been since its establishment in 2015 and in the last year the ABF has received additional funding totalling hundreds of millions of dollars, to support maritime and land-based operations.”

O’Neil said the funding issue was “not one politician’s word against another”, citing Outram’s comments. “This is a matter of fact and should not be the subject of any further conjecture by politicians or journalists around this country.”

According to the home affairs department’s 2022-23 annual report, that financial year12,691 flying hours were completed, representing a 14.24% (2,107) decrease in flying hours compared to 14,798 in 2021–22”.

“This was influenced by under-resourced aircrews and difficulties operating in remote offshore areas, resulting in increased aircraft maintenance requirements that, in turn, affected aircrew availability,” it said.

However, ABF officials have told Senate estimates the risk is “adequately mitigated” by use of additional defence assets, and they are seeking expressions of interest for a new aerial surveillance contract to commence from 2027.

On Tuesday O’Neil refused to be drawn on operational issues with surveillance flights.

“I’m not going to comment on the specific details of how we police our borders and just to be completely clear … the protection of our borders is a military-led operation which is difficult and dangerous,” O’Neil said.

“And obviously the most valuable information for people smugglers is specifics on exactly how we go about that task.”

“This used to be a clear bipartisan approach we should not telegraph to people smugglers or anyone else about the specifics of how we are patrolling our borders.

“And it’s very disappointing, reckless and damaging that in recent days, Peter Dutton has chosen to depart from that, presumably because he sees that he can make political gain.”

Dutton denied politicising the issue. “Well, nobody’s politicising the issue,” he told Channel Seven’s Sunrise. “I think we’re pointing out the fact that the government is making significant errors here, and the people smugglers will always test a weak prime minister.” On 3AW Dutton described O’Neil as an “angry person”.

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