Mark Riley: The real target of Peter Dutton’s border wars exposed as by-election looms

Headshot of Mark Riley
Mark Riley
The West Australian
3 Min Read
Peter Dutton knows the impression of chaos on the borders is a vote changer.
Peter Dutton knows the impression of chaos on the borders is a vote changer. Credit: Ross Swanborough/The West Australian

The asylum boat that has ignited the current controversy over border protection arrived in a remote stretch of WA’s far north.

But the real target of this furious debate is a sliver of coastline 5000km to the southeast.

It is on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, south of Melbourne — a 24km strip along the Mornington Peninsula that acts as the western border of the Federal electorate of Dunkley.

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In just eight days, the voters of Dunkley will go to a by-election that will act as a litmus test for the Albanese Government.

And Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is doing everything he can to ensure border protection is front and centre in those voters’ minds as their pencils hang above the ballot papers.

He knows the impression of chaos on the borders is a vote changer.

And Peter Dutton wants to change votes in Dunkley to damage Anthony Albanese and his Government.

That’s why he didn’t take a backward step when he was given a swift one up the bracket last Friday by the naval commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, Rear Admiral Brett Sonter.

And again when Border Force Commander Michael Outram followed up with an equally stinging rebuke on Tuesday.

Mark Riley.
Mark Riley. Credit: The West Australian

Dutton didn’t back down. He doubled down.

He’s now prepared to take all the hits necessary over the next week to ensure the issue remains in the headlines until voting in Dunkley is done.

Dutton’s central claim is that the boat’s arrival at Beagle Bay, about 100km north of Broome, is proof positive that the Government had lost control of the borders.

“Clearly the settings the Government have in place are not sufficient,” he said this week.

“The Prime Minister is showing a lack of leadership, a lack of strength and a weakness that is music to the ears of these people smugglers.

“People smugglers will take the money and put people on boats. They do not care whether the boats sink or not.”

Sonter suggested, none too subtly, that it was comments like those that the people smugglers would use to market their evil trade and coax more naïve asylum seekers onto boats with the false hope of settling in Australia.

The 39 Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian men who arrived last week said they were sold the promise of getting to Sydney so they could work and send money home to their families.

Instead, they were swiftly transferred to a detention centre in Nauru.

But one key suggestion Dutton has made is undeniably true. The boat’s arrival is the result of a failure in Australia’s maritime surveillance system.

And, although his claims of budget cuts to the surveillance network are furiously rejected by the Government and Border Force, there are serious questions about the adequacy of Australia’s reconnaissance of that northern corridor which has now allowed two boats to make the mainland since November.

The asylum seekers have now been flown to Nauru.
The asylum seekers have now been flown to Nauru. Credit: Cain Andrews/Broome Advertiser/TheWest

However, it isn’t the first time a couple of asylum boats have managed to slip Border Force’s net.

A boat carrying six Chinese nationals made it to Saibai Island in far north Queensland in August 2017.

Another boat ran aground near the Daintree a year later, with all 17 Vietnamese men on board making it to land.

On both occasions, the home affairs minister charged with directing Border Force was Peter Dutton.

His response to that second arrival?

“Clearly there’s been a failing when surveillance has not worked as it should in identifying this vessel or allowing this vessel to get as close to the coastline as it has.”

That was true then. And it is true now, although Dutton’s language in expressing it is very different.

This latest controversy is an important reminder of two things.

First, the people smugglers haven’t gone away.

And, second, neither has the tendency for border protection to be weaponised for base political purposes.

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