ABUL RIZVI: Is Dutton Frustrated by the Success of Turnback Policy?

After Scott Morrison’s success in implementing boat turnbacks, and Shorten insisting he will maintain that policy, Dutton’s role in this space has largely been confined to scaremongering. At last he has found a role he excels in. But like the boy who cried wolf, is the Australian public starting to see through Dutton’s bluster?

The unfortunate fact for Dutton is that when turnback policy was in place under Howard, it was rare for any people smuggler to challenge the Australian Navy. A few months after the policy was implemented, the smugglers were even having trouble getting enough asylum seekers to pay the big money needed to justify such a venture. That was the case throughout the period Howard steadily re-settled the refugee caseload, predominantly in Australia and New Zealand.

And frustratingly for Dutton, the situation is no different today. He loves to refer to intelligence on ‘chatter’ amongst people smugglers in Indonesia every time there is discussion about re-settling the caseload from Manus and Nauru, as he did again recently in a Sky News interview. But unless there is an actual increase in the number of asylum seeker boats leaving Indonesia and challenging the Australian Navy, will the Australian public continue to be taken in by Dutton’s warnings?

Dutton must lament there was no increase in boat arrivals when the US started accepting refugees from Manus and Nauru. And even with the increase in sick children being taken off Nauru following a range of legal challenges, there still hasn’t been an increase in boat arrivals.  If Dutton had any hair left, he would be tearing it out.

Under pressure from within his own party, Morrison has decided to make a virtue of taking more sick kids off Nauru. He is apparently doing it quietly and without fanfare – as if Morrison has ever done anything quietly and without fanfare.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall when Morrison told Dutton of the new policy of voluntarily removing sick kids from Nauru? But, but, but the boats! What about the boats?

Sadly for Dutton, still no increase in boat arrivals. And at the same time, Pauline Hanson has come out with an obscene line about procreation on Nauru, stealing any advantage Dutton may have had with ‘his base voters’ in Queensland.

Dutton now argues the sick kids are being removed from Nauru, not because of pressure from within his own party, but because it saves money. For pete’s sake (pun intended), if saving money was a factor the government would have re-settled the whole caseload years ago. Spending taxpayer’s money to keep the refugees on Manus and Nauru so Dutton could use his scaremongering skills has been the whole purpose of the exercise.

With the New Zealand government’s offer to resettle some of the refugees back in discussion, Dutton is out again with his usual warnings about the boats re-starting (see here). Surely if saving money is an objective, even if humanity is of no interest to the government, it is time to take up the New Zealand offer just as John Howard did with no risk of an increase in boat arrivals.

The sad fact for Dutton will be that the boats will not re-start coming if some of the refugees are re-settled in New Zealand and he still won’t be able to say ‘I told you so’.

Abul Rizvi was a senior official in the Department of Immigration from the early 1990s to 2007 when he left as Deputy Secretary. He was awarded the Public Service Medal and the Centenary Medal for services to development and implementation of immigration policy, including in particular the reshaping of Australia’s intake to focus on skilled migration. He is currently doing a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies.

This entry was posted in International Affairs, Refugees, Immigration. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to ABUL RIZVI: Is Dutton Frustrated by the Success of Turnback Policy?

  1. tasi timor says:


    ‘when turnback policy was in place under Howard, it was rare for any people smuggler to challenge the Australian Navy. A few months after the policy was implemented, the smugglers were even having trouble..’

    The few Howard turnbacks operated in a different context. An understanding had already been reached between his Gov and the ambitious Indonesian Co-ordinating Minister for Political Legal and Security affairs, who would soon become President with our support. New wars had changed the dynamics, the lines into Indonesia had already been displaced and asylum seekers were going elsewhere, there were just a few dozen remaining in Indonesia in a camp in NTB. Not all boats were turned back, just a few and then only when safe to do so. Even so, one was pushed too far west to Sawu and ran aground. Those turned back promptly jumped on other boats and made it here. They used Kolbano as a departure point on the southern coast of West Timor to avoid Ashmore and enter our waters further east.

    ‘if some of the refugees are re-settled in New Zealand’

    Then focus may shift to NZ as it did last time, when smugglers sent asylum seekers to NZ by air.

    The state of the bilateral relationship is the key determinant and not OSB turnbacks. A few days ago Kelly wrote in the daily Rupert, ‘If Indonesia pulls the plug on security co-operation and boat people…the border protection policies much championed by conservatives are undermined.’ Someone who understands the dynamics of the Jakarta-Canberra relationship had obviously briefed him.

    • Abul Rizvi says:

      You are right that co-operation from Jakarta is essential. But Jakarta also has no interest in Indonesia itself attracting more asylum seekers. Cooperation to combat people smuggling is in Indonesia’s own interest?

      Asylum seekers arriving by air have been an ongoing issue for both Australia and NZ. I cannot remember a time in the last 25 years when they were not.

      • tasi timor says:

        ‘..Jakarta also has no interest in Indonesia itself attracting more asylum seekers. Cooperation to combat people smuggling is in Indonesia’s own interest?’

        Thankyou Abul.

        The refugee ‘industry’ gives Jakarta a presence and influence in international forums it otherwise would not and allows their selected people to join large transnational NGOs, who can then employ smaller Indonesian NGO activists. It’s a new career path. IOM first entered Indonesia in Timor 99 so strictly tied to UNHCR they couldn’t do anything unless a UNHCR rep had been there first. They used the presence of ME refugees in West Timor to expand their activities, and since then have moved even further away from their core Immigration mandate to training POLRI in community policing in W.Papua, employing many Indonesian staff.

        Jakarta doesn’t need more than the approx 14,000 they already have as leverage and a latent threat. Co-operation works with quid pro quos, including acknowledging in practice Jakarta’s interpretation of ‘Code of Conduct’ in their translation of the Lombok text. In previous crises it has not been in Jakarta’s interests to co-operate and this may very well be so in an inevitable future crisis. Australia has accepted no more Papuan asylum seekers who arrive by sea since the boat that provoked the latest crisis. One of the first things PM Abbott did on election was to very publicly assure SBY that Australia would not permit Papuans and their supporters to use Australia as a base to undermine RI’s territorial integrity. Abbott had obviously observed and learned from the mistakes of Howard and Rudd. Had SBY not cancelled all co-operation for five months the argument for the unilateralism of OSB would have been far less compelling.

        I have always been impressed by the US funding of ILO to combat the excesses of people trafficking in Indonesia, mostly cheap labour to Malaysia. Indonesia and Malaysia more than tolerate a huge smuggling industry for various domestic reasons. It’s something we should have done. Smugglers bringing asylum seekers to Indonesia via Batam work in the other trade as well. The US ILO program had first to convince authorities in Jakarta it was in their interest to co-operate and suited the times when the TPP was a US priority. It was even noble. Contrast with Australian adhoccery. Better late than never, Mr Forrest’s Modern Slavery project is becoming active in selected Indonesian provinces –



  2. Hal Duell says:

    The turn-back policy being followed by the navy and coast guard has broken the “supply chain” of boat arrivals and the refugees they used to carry. As long as that policy remains, it would be of great benefit to the individual refugees, who surely have paid dearly enough for their once-held dreams, and to Australia to close the brutal chapter of offshore detention that is now part of our history.

    • Abul Rizvi says:

      Yes. As John has said many times, with turnback policy in place, keeping the refugees on Manus and Nauru serves no policy purpose.

Comments are closed.