The Coalition’s ‘Border Security’ Lies Are Coming Undone

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Aside from revealing his own party’s hypocrisy, Turnbull’s decision to start taking about boat arrivals proves the Coalition is very worried about July 2. And with good reason, writes Ben Eltham.

It was always likely that the Coalition would turn to asylum seeker policy at this stage of the campaign.

Strident rhetoric about border security and “the boats” has long been a staple of the Liberal Party’s campaign messages – ever since John Howard famously declared “we will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”

Received political wisdom says that the issue is always a winner for the conservative side of politics. It also deflects attention away from the opposition, which has made major strides in recent days with its attack on health policy.

Hence, asylum seeker scares are the favourite tactic for the Coalition when things go badly on the campaign trail.

And they are. A poll conducted on Monday night by ReachTEL shows the Coalition trailing badly in six New South Wales marginal seats, including perennial bellwethers like Lindsay and Eden-Monaro.

The poll, commissioned by the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation, has solid response figures, with around 600 polled in each seat.

RechTEL poll results
19 April 20 June
Coalition Labor Coalition Labor
Dobell 49 51 47 53
Lindsay 49 51 46 54
Macquarie 50 50 46 54
Eden-Monaro 51 49 45 55
Gilmore 53 47 47 53
Page 44 56 46 54

ReachTEL poll results in six New South Wales marginal seats. Poll conducted for the NSW Teachers’ Federation on June 20. 3,777 respondents.

These figures are very different from the 50-50 polls we’ve been seeing on a nation-wide basis. If they are repeated on election day, the Coalition will be in serious trouble in New South Wales.

We don’t know if this trend is being repeated in other marginal seats in other states. But if it is, the government is perilously close to defeat.

This may well be the reason the government is desperately throwing the switch to asylum seekers, just ten days out from polling day.

Yesterday, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announced a special media conference, in which he revealed fascinating new information about Australia’s secretive immigration policies.

“I wanted to provide an update in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders. I want to inform you today that earlier this month, Maritime Border Command became aware of a suspected people smuggling venture and that vessel was intercepted. There were 21 people on board that vessel including 11 adult males, six adult females, three male children and one female child. The people claimed to be from Vietnam and that proved to be the case and I can report to you that the people were successfully returned to Vietnam.

That brings to 28 the number of boats that we have turned back and 734 people on those boats otherwise would have made it to our country. If boats get to our country it sends a very clear message to people smugglers and to people that want to get onto boats that the way to our country is open again.”

Someone in the Coalition also made sure that Simon Benson was dropped the information in time for a Daily Telegraph front page yesterday. The ever-pliant Benson duly wrote it up as an “exclusive”, which is the word the Tele uses for an email from Tony Nutt’s office. The headline read “Navy intercepts asylum seeker boat in first test of borders during campaign.”

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Dutton was echoed by Prime Minister Macolm Turnbull. Yesterday and again today, Turnbull strayed from his ostensible talking points to make unprompted statements about immigration policy.

Yesterday, for instance, Turnbull told journalists at a media appearance that “the Labor Party has announced that they are going to abolish temporary protection visas.”

“This will send an absolutely unequivocal signal to the people smugglers that under a Labor Government, anyone who manages to get to Australia on a boat will be able to stay here permanently.”

The Prime Minister was at it again today, telling the media at a campaign appearance in Geelong that 28 boats had arrived and been turned back by the government.

It’s worth unpacking the “boats are re-starting” rhetoric a little, because it shows how morally bankrupt asylum seeker policy in Australia has become. Dutton’s extraordinary announcement made yesterday was the first time we’ve been told that 28 boats have been turned around by the Navy under current government policies.

Ever since gaining office in September 2013, the government has cloaked border security in a tight veil of secrecy, claiming that any information about “on-water matters” would merely encourage the dreaded people smugglers.

That justification was always threadbare – after all, it assumed that people smugglers don’t have their own sources of intelligence, which they manifestly do.

But the government’s decision this week to abandon the pretence that it can’t talk about boat arrivals exposes the “on-water matters” tactic for the lie it always was. Apparently we can talk about “on-water matters” after all. I’m sure the fact that we are now in an election campaign has nothing to do with the sudden revelation about 28 boats.

The pivot back to boat scares this week also destroys the government’s favourite campaign slogan – that it has “stopped the boats.” As the Guardian’s Katherine Murphy pointed out today, the Coalition is now calling press conferences to announce boat arrivals, while maintaining that only the Coalition can stop the boats.

“I’m also, myself, quite confused by the Coalition declaring that only this government can stop the boats when the boats haven’t stopped,” Murphy wrote. “As Malcolm Turnbull said this morning, 28 have arrived and been repelled.”

The asylum seeker scare is being compared to Labor’s attack on health policy, with many commentators claiming that the two major parties are running competing scare campaigns.

This isn’t true either. While it is the case that Labor has ramped up the rhetoric on Medicare, there is a strong basis of fact in Labor’s warnings. As we argued on Tuesday, Labor’s attacks on health policy are far from just a scare campaign: a dispassionate analysis of Coalition health policy over the past three years shows a consistent creep towards privatised medicine.

In contrast, the Coalition’s warnings about border security under a Labor government have little substance. Tragically, Labor’s asylum policies are every bit as brutal and inhumane as the Coalition’s.

Even if we accept that both parties are trying to scare voters, this leaves the uncomfortable question of which party’s fear-mongering is working.

The theory behind asylum seeker rhetoric is of course that it doesn’t matter what the Coalition actually says, as long as voters notice that we’re again talking about border security. I’m not so sure about that.

Alarmist rhetoric about asylum seeker arrivals (who could forget Tony Abbott’s warning of a “peaceful invasion”?) has been a feature of Australian politics for more than a decade. And yet voters consistently place immigration policy well down the list of the most important issues that will decide their vote.

According to the available opinion polling, the economy and health remain the two key issues influencing voters at the 2016 election. An Essential poll in March, before the campaign began, showed that “ensuring the quality of Australia’s health system” was the single most important issue, followed by“Management of the economy” and “Australian jobs and protection of local industries”. Education is also looming as a significant issue, according to data from the ABC’s Vote Compass.

If we believe this data, then the Coalition should be hammering home its advantage on economic management. Instead, the Coalition is now sounding the klaxons on border protection.

It could be that Liberal strategists are worried that the message on the economy is not cutting through. Or it could be that the Coalition is desperate. With the Liberals in trouble in New South Wales and a resurgent Nick Xenophon running riot in South Australia, the election looks closer than ever.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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