Peter Dutton Is Facing A Crisis Of His Own Making


OPINION: Thanks to the success of the ‘stop the boats’ talking point, the Coalition has avoided scrutiny as its refugee policies have floundered. Even if you ignore the human rights abuses, Peter Dutton has failed, writes Max Chalmers.

Whether he wants to admit it or not, Peter Dutton has a crisis on his hands. And it’s not one caused by the PNG Supreme Court.

When the Coalition took government, it framed the issue of asylum seeker arrivals through a singular prism. The aim of the policy was simple, and repeated as a mantra.

Stop. The. Boats.

So obsessed did the government become with the talking point, it eventually became the answer to literally any question. What was the government doing to improve the economic situation, Abbott was asked by Leigh Sales? Stopping the boats. Left in the political wilderness, Tony Abbott continues to repeat the phrase at every opportunity.

The genius of the talking point, and the reason it worked for the Coalition, was not that it outlined an answer to a problem. It was that it defined what the problem was. In forming government, the Coalition had simply to fulfil its mantra.

And that’s how a monumental failure was generally taken – by the electorate, but moreso by the media – as a major success.

After the Coalition won the 2013 election, 23-year-old Reza Barati was murdered in the Manus Island camp. 24-year-old Hamid Khazaei also died after cutting his foot, and suffering the kind of medical and bureaucratic neglect that would result in calls for a Royal Commission if it happened to a white person. On Nauru, allegations of sexual assaults and instances of self-harm barely even warrant a mention any more, so frequent have they become. Australia has also happily supported an apparently corrupt government.

Meanwhile, virtually no one has been resettled. Want to talk about waste? The $55 million paid to Cambodia must be one of the most diabolically poorly planned pieces of public policy in recent memory. We bribed a country notorious for human rights abuses to take some refugees off our hands. It didn’t even work. Two people have been resettled there, and no one has any idea what will happen to the hundreds still on Nauru.

new matilda, peter dutton
Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton appearing on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report.

Things have since become desperate, at times farcical. Remember when we were talking to Kyrgyzstan about sending refugees there? Dutton has shopped around without any regards for human rights standards and still not found a home for the people on Nauru, a tiny island nation which has always made clear it could not handle them in the long term. Who knows, perhaps we’ll sign an MOU with Assad or ISIS and just get the whole thing done with.

What exactly would happen to the nearly 2,000 people on Manus and Nauru once their claims were assessed has never been clear. It’s an issue that Labor and the Coalition have not been able to answer. Richard Marles’ insistence that Dutton pressure the PNG government to keep people on Manus in the wake of the Supreme Court decision shows just how little Labor has done in opposition to develop substantial policies in the refugee sphere.

And that’s why even if you ignore the gross abuses of human rights, the rapes, the murders, the disappearances, the self-immolations, the babies sent offshore after being born in Australia, there is only one conclusion to be drawn. Both parties have failed in this policy area.

The Coalition has stopped boats reaching Australia (which, for the record, is not the same as stopping the boats). But the PNG Supreme Court decision sheds light on just how little they have done to address the issue as a whole.

The irony is that Nauru always looked like more of a problem than PNG for the government, given the enormous number of people there who needed a third country to go to. For all the problems at Manus, at least there was a plan in place to settle people after they were assessed. Now, Dutton has suggested those detained on Manus could be sent to Nauru too.

In the Financial Review this morning, Phillip Coorey observes that Australian politics is in a period of Déjà vu, with climate change and refugees back on the agenda as the nation approaches an election. Picking at the political angle, he adjudicates this situation is likely to advantage the Coalition.

That may well be true, but it’s another painful irony. The reason both issues have returned is that the Coalition has not adequately dealt with them. Governing at a time of an historic global refugee crisis the stop the boats mantra has proved inadequate. While the colour drains from the Great Barrier Reef, as it might from a dying man’s face, the Party reignites its scare campaigns over carbon trading schemes and continues to peddle direct action, described as a “con” by its own leader. This will not save the reef, nor help Australia prepare for the regional climate evacuations that have already begun.

The Supreme Court of PNG is not the cause of the policy crisis faced by Peter Dutton any more than those faced by Greg Hunt or Malcolm Turnbull. As the next election looms, the Coalition is still grappling with the fallout from the ideas it put forward to win in 2013.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.