Labor’s border policy own goal
Scott Morrison is happy to seize a political opportunity
Yesterday’s attempt by Labor, the Greens and independents to ambush the minority government in the name of sick asylum-seeker children was portrayed in some media coverage as clever tactics. Quite apart from the fact that the manoeuvre failed, this focus on short-term politics obscured some dubious assumptions. One is that because the boats have been stopped, they will stay stopped, making it riskfree to grandstand on the asylumseeker question. This is rich coming from the Greens, who opposed the Coalition’s successful border control policy. The other assumption is that mainstream public opinion has shifted behind the narrative of a medical emergency among offshore asylumseekers. In fact, there is no reason to believe that voters have given up their support for Operation Sovereign Borders, which Scott Morrison ran as immigration minister. The electorate understands that a manufactured crisis must not be used to weaken border control (especially when such a stunt delays a vital encryption bill).
Labor hardheads know all this yet the party could not resist tagging along with parliamentary fringe dwellers to try to embarrass the government. In one day they destroyed the work of many months, angrily attacking as “lies” suggestions that Labor’s border control policy was in any way less tough than the Coalition’s. This is dangerous territory for the opposition, especially close to a national conference and a federal poll. Given an opening, the Labor Left stands ready to hijack border control with a “compassionate” alternative, and the party feels pressure on this policy front from the Greens.
So it was no surprise that in question time yesterday, the government served up a series of Dorothy Dixers on border control. Labor aimed its attack at government failure on energy and its “big stick” divestment policy as a stalking horse for electricity privatisation. The government calmly denied any hidden privatisation agenda. But Labor got no right of reply, of course, to the government’s Dixers. Mr Morrison got the chance to bring up the 14,000 asylum-seekers in Indonesia who he said would queue for leaky boats if Bill Shorten became prime minister. And he said the peoplesmugglers he put out of business — one was driving a taxi in Jakarta — would quickly gear up to exploit any open borders surrender. Mr Shorten lacked the “mettle” to turn back boats.
The government had figures credibly suggesting talk of a medical emergency involving children might be a “doctor shopping” pretext for dismantling offshore processing. Soon, there would be only six children left on Nauru because the government had been transferring families from the island — but in an understated way so as not to encourage people-smugglers. Other figures were cited from Labor’s disastrous open borders failure of 200713: 1200 men, women and children drowned at sea; 50,000 unlawful arrivals in more than 800 boats; 8000 children in detention; and 17 detention centres opened. Numbers such as these count for more than votes in a parliamentary stunt.