For years now Peter Dutton has boasted of his border protection achievements. But a brief examination of the details of his boast shows that while he has excelled in gratuitous cruelty, dog-whistling and wasting taxpayer’s money, his actual border protection record is weak. He has given us the trifecta of weak borders, inhumane treatment of genuine refugees and a reputation as racists.
John Menadue has shown that it was not Dutton, or even Morrison, that stopped the boats but that these had largely been stopped before Abbott became Prime Minister. Menadue has also shown that Abbott, supported by Morrison as Shadow Minister, tore down the Malaysia Agreement that gave us the best chance of stopping the boats in a humane and cost-effective way.
What Dutton has given us is a totally unnecessary delay in re-settling the refugees on Manus and Nauru at extraordinary human and financial cost. Those costs continue to be incurred for no good policy reason. Howard and Ruddock showed that re-settling refugees from Manus and Nauru in Australia and New Zealand would not re-start the boats.
Dutton’s treatment of the Biloela family, compared to his treatment of the au pairs of rich people with links to Dutton, shows he has no understanding of the vital role of Ministerial Discretion. If he had only used that discretion when it first became clear the family had strong support from the Biloela community, he would have not only saved the family from unnecessary pain but also saved some $30 Million in taxpayer’s money. That could have been achieved with no chance of re-starting the boats.
We also now know of Dutton’s incompetence in allowing the biggest surge in non-genuine asylum seekers in Australia’s history. A surge that he describes as a red herring while his junior minister Alan Tudge tries to pretend he is taking effective action to address the surge. A surge that Dutton has tried to address by jacking up visitor refusal rates in a blunt and largely ineffective way that is costing our tourism industry over $500 Million per annum.
To distract from his failures, Dutton is now advertising that his Department has cancelled the visas of 5,000 foreign criminals. But in his boast he fails to point out that in the last two years there has been a major fall in the number of people whose visas were cancelled under the character provisions. These have declined from 1,278 in 2016-17 to just 943 in 2018-19.
Dutton also fails to mention that 234 of these character cancellations were revoked in 2018-19 – in other words the original visa was re-instated. Similarly, Dutton makes no mention of the fact that refusals of visa applications on character grounds have fallen from 631 in 2016-17 to 268 in 2018-19.
Or that the number of onshore student visa cancellations has fallen from 5,102 in 2016-17 to 2,707 in 2018-19. Or indeed that the overall number of visa cancellations has fallen from 62,071 in 2015-16 to 53,993 in 2018-19.
But his failure on border protection does not stop there. In an extraordinary development, the number of overstayers and others removed from Australia has fallen sharply in 2018-19 to 9,195 from 14,721 in 2016-17 (see Chart 1).
This is at a time we are seeing a rapid increase in the number of refused asylum seekers at both the primary stage and at the AAT. According to the Department of Home Affairs December report to the Senate, there are over 20,000 such people in Australia ready for removal.
This raises the question of whether the Government is making any effort to locate, detain and remove this rapidly growing cohort of refused asylum seekers.
The evidence would suggest the Government is totally disinterested in this. Why would that be? Could it be the Government is concerned about a negative reaction from farmers and other employers if the Government takes action to remove these workers?
Dutton has tried to suggest the surge in non-genuine asylum applications is to be expected as it is just part of the general rise in temporary movements into Australia. If that argument holds, we should be seeing cancellations, visa refusals on character, removals and returns increasing. But no. These are in strong decline.
The most likely explanation for this range of extraordinary declines is a reduction in resources available for these core immigration functions.
Dutton seems unable to comprehend that there are consequences from wasting billions of dollars in offshore detention. Or in spending $180 Million on re-opening and re-closing Christmas Island detention centre for nothing more than a political photo-opportunity, even if that is for the Prime Minister.
The fact is the Department of Finance rules require ministers to find offsetting savings for these types of discretionary expenditures.
It is highly likely these costs are being paid for through reductions in resources for standard immigration functions.
That reduction in resources has implications for border protection and the integrity of the immigration system.
It’s time Dutton boasted less about his border protection record and started to look for ways to secure savings to invest in standard immigration functions and actual border protection.
An obvious option would be to close Manus and Nauru and re-settle the refugees.
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.