Border insecurity

Dutton’s lies on border security are a sign that nothing stands between him and cynical politics – not even stopping the boats

The conventional take, from those who consumed the ABC’s Nemesis miniseries, was to bemoan a decade of opportunity squandered by the consuming forces of ideological squabble and destructive personal ambition. The three-part series documented a Liberal Party beset by raw frictions, serial deceit and friable loyalties.

It was a decade, you might argue, in which we could have maintained what was an effective carbon price and further developed a coherent policy around energy and climate. Instead that area of urgent existential policy became merely a core focus of first destruction and then immobilising division. Where was tax reform, so proudly a part of the Liberal Party tradition? Family policy? Pacific relations? Trade? Health?

Here’s a counter reading: that decade of angry navel-gazing may have saved us from a Coalition government that actually enacted an agenda; it was a period of hiatus, but also a period of grace.

You need only look to the key achievements between 2013 and 2022, things that the Coalition actually got done, to be thankful that schoolyard sniping got in the way of any policy-focused zealots doing more: Robodebt, the inland rail boondoggle, the dubious and still unrealised charms of Snowy 2.0…

Let’s single out Scott Morrison here, as perhaps the most effective minister and prime minister of the period, notwithstanding Abbott’s destruction of climate policy and weirdly fetishised Queen’s honours. It was Morrison who took Robodebt to cabinet with disastrous human consequence. And it was Morrison who still claims as his defining triumph the obscure benefits of the financially injurious AUKUS agreement. Let’s quote distinguished strategic studies academic and long-time senior defence department bureaucrat Hugh White on that: 

“We find ourselves in a remarkable situation. Coalition and Labor governments have committed Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines that we do not need, via a plan that will almost certainly fail. The longer it takes for this to be acknowledged, the more likely it will be that our submarine capability will simply collapse as the Collins-class boats become unserviceable with no replacements in sight. This would surely count as the most disastrous defence-policy mistake in our history and one of the worst on record anywhere.”

Anyone pinning their political legacy on AUKUS might be heading for a fall. But what about border security? You might find it morally repugnant and a human rights travesty, but the one area in which the trio of Coalition governments since 2013 had concrete success was in amplifying the border security regime of strict offshore detention first introduced and enforced by the Rudd and Gillard governments. Morrison famously enacted the Abbott mantra of “stopping the boats”. Peter Dutton would go on to make it the darkly paramilitary hallmark of his period as minister for home affairs.

That it stands as perhaps the single most effective and defining achievement of a decade of rule makes the behaviour of Dutton in recent days a thing that can only be explained in terms of the sort of base opportunistic cynicism that led the Liberals through 10 years of tumbling prime ministers and policy paralysis.

Dutton knows that people smugglers are alert, sophisticated actors. As he told Ben Fordham yesterday on 2GB: “[T]he thing to understand here is that the people smugglers, even if they’re coming from a fishing village or they’re [in] an impoverished part of south-east Asia, they are sophisticated crime syndicates, and they move people around, they move drugs around, they run prostitution rackets, weapons, whatever it might be – they just see human beings as another commodity – and they’re business people. They look at every word the prime minister says, they look for a little chink in the armour, and then they package that up in social media messages or a text message out to potential clients who are sitting in a village somewhere waiting to hop on a boat.”

The leader of the Opposition would also be aware that his own words have consequences, and when he proclaims that Operation Sovereign Borders is a structure being eroded by the actions of the Albanese government, he must confidently predict that this is a message that will encourage the “sophisticated crime syndicates” that are listening to our north and waiting on opportunity.

It’s hard to budge the sense that a sudden flurry of boats is precisely what Peter Dutton would like to see happen, that the political opportunity created by boat arrivals would serve his political cause. In pursuit of that advantage, Dutton is prepared to tell what Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil this morning described as “easily disprovable lies”. Operation Sovereign Borders funding has been cut by $600 million, says Dutton, time and again. Ears presumably prick up in Indonesia and elsewhere. “Funding has increased by $470 million”, says O’Neil, a claim backed by her bureaucrats and independent fact-checking. Which is where the circle closes, capturing a politician from a party that spent a decade in power cannibalising itself through acts of vituperative pettiness; a politician now prepared to spread mischievous mistruth in the hope that it will unpick one of the few concrete achievements of that undistinguished term in power. Nemesis indeed. 

“It’s increasingly obvious that without a formal alcohol code, the informal responsible drinking policies in parliament are only as good as the party leaders insisting on them. It’s time for the Nationals to wake up to themselves, and Littleproud needs to step up.”

Nine’s national affairs editor, James Massola, says the National Party is increasingly the odd one out when it comes to parliamentary workplace drinking.

“It adds up to a cynical, increasingly transactional Australian government, with very few discernible foreign policy principles, with no interest in making any strategic difference in Ukraine. Rather, it does whatever it thinks is the minimum necessary to satisfy the Americans that we’re on board. Alexei Navalny, we’re surely not.”

The Australian’s Greg Sheridan pulls a long bow to make a case that the Australian government is insufficiently supportive of Ukraine’s fight against Vladimir Putin.

$11 billion

The price tag for today’s announced reshape of Australia’s naval fleet, or as the government describes it, the additional cost of building its “Enhanced Lethality Surface Combatant Fleet”.

ATO seeks to recoup $15bn via ‘robotax’ scheme

According to FOI documents obtained by Guardian Australia, the Australian Taxation Office plans to expand a controversial scheme that resurrects decades-old debts in its pursuit of more than $15 billion from 1.8 million entities, mainly individuals.

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