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

Factcheck: Peter Dutton says Labor has weakened Australia’s asylum policy. Is he right?

The arrival of an asylum seeker boat in Western Australia has renewed a war of words about Operation Sovereign Borders, with the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, claiming Labor has weakened Australia’s harsh deterrence policies.

Although Labor supports OSB – including boat turnbacks and offshore detention – Dutton now claims the Albanese government has made cuts to the program.

What is Dutton claiming?

On 2GB and Channel Seven’s Sunrise, Dutton claimed Labor has “taken $600m out of border protection” and “reduced the amount of surveillance flights”.

What is the basis of the claimed $600m cut?

In 2022-23, $1.23bn was spent on border enforcement, according to the home affairs parliamentary budget statement.

The 2023-24 budget projected a smaller funding allocation for that program of $1.2bn in the first year, dropping to $1.04bn in the fourth year.

If the 2022-23 level of funding had been maintained for the next four years, a cumulative total of $600m more would be spent.

Is that the way cuts are measured?

Not usually.

In Senate estimates in May 2023, the home affairs department chief finance officer, Stephanie Cargill, explained that “the major component of the reduction is actually related to the fact the 2022-23 budget was overspent”.

So, the Coalition claim is based on extrapolating out an unusually expensive year for a further four years.

Cuts are usually measured by looking at projected spending for the next four years, relative to what was projected for the same years in the previous budget.

When measured in this way, the Albanese government spent $252m more on border enforcement and border management this year than was projected in the Coalition’s last budget, and cumulatively $470m more in the four years to 2025-26.

The head of the Australian Border Force, Michael Outram, contradicted Dutton’s claim that Labor had made cuts to OSB, saying in a statement funding had never been higher.

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.”

Will more or less be spent?

The former departmental secretary, Michael Pezzullo, also rejected the Coalition’s characterisation of this as a “planned reduction” at Senate estimates in May.

“What happens at every [mid-year update] … is there’s an adjustment made in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders and its estimates variation, which is always the biggest moving amount,” he said.

“Governments always, in my experience, consider very carefully propositions that come forward to shore up and reinforce the Border Force’s maritime capabilities, detention capability and so on and so forth.”

The point Pezzullo was making was that spending is essentially demand-driven: if home affairs and Border Force ask for more money for OSB, they are likely to get it, and actual spending in those years may be higher.

The projections are therefore better characterised as a floor rather than a ceiling.

What is the basis of claimed fewer flights?

According to the 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”.

The report explained the causes and intended solution:

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. ABF has engaged the service providers to formulate remediation plans to improve aircrew recruitment and retention and address the current decline in aerial surveillance hours.

On 23 October Outram told Senate estimates that as a consequence, “we would probably ask … to get Defence assets to supplement our aerial surveillance”.

Rear Admiral Justin Jones, then commander of OSB, explained he “can call on additional assets from Defence through joint operations command”.

Asked by the shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, if the shortfall in flights is being “adequately mitigated”, Jones replied: “Yes, it is.”

What about temporary protection visas?

Dutton has repeatedly cited the fact Labor has abolished temporary protection visas as another difference in its implementation of OSB.

But TPVs and their replacement were not given to unauthorised maritime arrivals who arrived after the mid-2013 deadline, after which the major parties resolved that nobody who came to Australia by boat would settle here.

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 claim of a $600m reduction in funding is largely an accounting trick based on a comparison with one reference year, not a like-for-like comparison with projections in the Coalition’s final budget. Projections are also likely to under-estimate actual spending.

It is correct that fewer surveillance flights were operated in Labor’s first year in office, but the defence force says this was due to operational difficulties not a policy or planned reduction.

OSB remains in place, and is not being implemented substantially differently by the Albanese government.

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