Soft target

Peter Dutton’s Coalition reignites the time-honoured political tradition of calling Labor soft on borders, while the media joins in the hysterics

Here we go again. The Coalition’s fearmongering over borders, in which members of the Opposition ramp-up their chest-beating and try to paint Labor as being soft on border security, appears set to return to Australian politics. Along with climate policy and the tiresome culture wars, border protection is an area of public debate that extracts more oxygen out of political discourse than most, with the Canberra press gallery eagerly indulging in the spectacle of national security as national sport. Asylum seekers are easy fodder for everyone – except the government. 

The arrival of 40 men last week on the north-west coast of Australia has the Opposition poised with buckets of chum, ready to throw handfuls into the water to once again attract the xenophobia and fear that has long been ingrained in the Australian community when it comes to “boat people”.  With early voting now open for the Dunkley byelection, we can expect the dog-whistling and fearmongering to reach new heights – it’s the only way Peter Dutton knows how to campaign. 

In a sample of what to expect, the Liberal leader this morning conflated two separate but related issues: Operation Sovereign Borders and the recent High Court ruling that found that locking up people in immigration detention indefinitely is illegal. “They’re [the government] sending a green light to people smugglers when the news is distributed, that people who are non-citizens who have committed terrible crimes can be released into the country,” Dutton told reporters. “How [can the] Australian prime minister look the public in the eye and tell something that is not true?” Here, Dutton is banking on people not understanding how the separation of powers works, as well as the media being more interested in his “scathing remarks” instead of providing insight as to what’s really at play here and the scale of the actual problem. 

The government is having none of it. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters on Sunday: “Peter Dutton is someone who is showing, with his overblown rhetoric and with his overreach on this issue, showing that he’s not interested in outcomes or in the Australian national interest. As usual, he’s just interested in politics.” Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek spoke along similar lines this morning on Sunrise. “The only person who would be helping the people smugglers right now is Peter Dutton. He would be running the advertising campaign for them, the way that he’s carrying on,” said Plibersek. 

The carry-on isn’t limited to Peter Dutton though. Shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie was quick to stoke fear on Sky News: “The question is, can we even surveil the north-west coast of Australia? I think it’s an important question to ask because how is it that two groups of men arrived at Beagle Bay and Pender Bay, and we completely miss them – both the ADF and the ABF?”

The media, of course, has a role to play here, and early indications are that most of the fourth estate will revert back to covering borders as though they are a form of political sport, focusing on the interplay in the parliament rather than the substance of the issue. The Australian, the Australian Border Force’s news outlet of choice, has been ramping up the hysteria, and providing the Opposition with its talking points. You can expect the tabloids to follow suit.

So much of the toxicity on the issue of border security has been enabled by the media allowing itself to fall into the same rhetorical nonsense spouted by the Coalition. For so long, the notion of “illegals” has gone largely unchallenged, with little or no correction to let the public know that it isn’t illegal to seek asylum under international law. In fact, it’s a human right, but we’ve become very adept at choosing which human rights we adhere to. If they fit with the political narrative of the day, they’re in. If they are inconvenient or are in danger of making leaders look “soft”, they’re out. 

The 40 men have now been flown to Nauru, as is standard practice under Operation Sovereign Borders, where they will be hidden away from Australians and where it is unlikely that we will ever know much about their plight, what drove them here and what it was they were fleeing. They will remain, as has been the deliberate strategy of successive federal governments, out of sight and out of mind.

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