La­bor’s bor­der pol­icy own goal

Scott Mor­ri­son is happy to seize a po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity

The Australian - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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