Dutton oversaw largest rise in asylum applications in history. They came by air

Feb 22, 2024
A man with a travel bag on his way to Australia

The arrival last week of a boat carrying 24 potential asylum seekers, and possibly another one carrying 13, sent Peter Dutton into his standard boat arrivals scare mode. The usual suspects at the Murdoch press went into a frenzy of panic with Chris Kenny calling it a ‘national dilemma’.

Dutton has again warned of an ‘armada’ of boats coming at us. Those who are longstanding observers of this debate will know that Dutton has a habit of warning of an armada of boats at every opportunity he gets.

So could he be right this time?

Despite Dutton’s protestations, both major parties now have identical policies on boat arrivals. Both parties are committed to maintaining turnback policy under Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB), offshore processing on Nauru and the non-settlement of these asylum seekers in Australia.

Dutton’s constant reference to the Albanese Government providing existing Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders with a pathway to permanent residence is a total red herring. The policy of both major parties is that any person who has arrived on an unauthorised boat since offshore processing was re-introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2013 will not be settled in Australia. Hence no boat arrival since that time has had access to a TPV.

While people smugglers may try to mislead their clients on that, the facts around this are very clear on the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) website. Anyone who is going to pay a people smuggler thousands of dollars will absolutely be checking that website.

Once the most recent boat arrivals, who are apparently from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (which is unusual), realise they have been tricked by people smugglers, word will get back to their communities that coming to Australia by boat will not give them a favourable outcome.

Another false argument Dutton makes is that the Albanese Government has cut funding for the Border Enforcement function that includes OSB. According to the Budget Papers, actual expenditure on this function in recent years has been:

2019-20: $1.14 Billion.

2020-21: $1.04 Billion.

2021-22: 1.10 Billion.

2022-23: 1.24 Billion.

2023-24 Est: 1.27 Billion.

The Albanese Government has been spending more on the Border Enforcement function than the Coalition – a fact Dutton has never accepted. While there is a reduction in funding for Border Enforcement in the Forward Estimates, people familiar with how government budgeting works will know there is a natural conservative bias in the Forward Estimates that is offset by a contingency reserve that is designed to address the conservative bias. This bias will be more explicitly addressed in future budgets when specific funding decisions are made and money appropriated.

It is true that OSB has been facing issues with the recruitment of pilots and an ageing fleet of aeroplanes. These are long-term administrative challenges unrelated to government policy. But given the funding available to OSB and the support it can access from the Department of Defence, the chances of an armada of boats getting past OSB are close to zero.

The real issue from a border protection perspective is not the tiny number of boat arrivals but the fact we now have almost 110,000 asylum seekers living in Australia with little to no chance of being recognised as refugees. That started in 2015 when we saw the biggest labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system in our history (see Chart 1). The scam started with Malaysian nationals and quickly spread to Chinese nationals. The scam peaked in 2017-18 when almost 28,000 asylum applications were received, with 67 percent from Malaysian and Chinese nationals.

Source: DHA Asylum and PV Reports

This was of course when Dutton was Home Affairs Minister – a fact he desperately tries to avoid talking about. To its utter shame, it is a scam the Murdoch press assiduously avoided reporting on until well after the change of Government. Since the change of government, both the Murdoch press and Dutton talk about this purely as being the fault of the Albanese Government. In fact Dutton recently told Australians that the 100,000 plus asylum seekers currently in Australia arrived under the Albanese Government when the vast majority arrived under Dutton’s watch.

It is worth noting the total number of asylum applications received when Dutton was in charge from December 2014 to March 2021:
2014-15: 8,587 (only some of these would have been lodged when Dutton was Minister)

2015-16: 9,554

2016-17: 18,290

2017-18: 27,931

2018-19: 24,566

2019-20: 23,266

2020-21: 11,684 (this decline was largely due to international borders being closed).

In total, there were between 100,000 and 120,000 asylum applications lodged while Dutton was in charge. The is by far the largest number of asylum applications under any immigration minister in our history. Yet we did not hear a word from him or from the Murdoch press on this when the scam was running hot. It was as if the biggest labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system in our history had nothing to do with border protection.

The Albanese Government has undoubtedly taken far too long to address the issue of unmeritorious asylum seekers arriving by plane that it inherited from the Coalition. Its $160 million package to address that is inadequate but it is far more than Dutton ever did on the issue.
However, for Dutton to now carry on about 40 odd boat arrivals is an extraordinary deflection from his own numerous failures.


For more on this topic, P&I recommends:

The repeated lie that Morrison stopped the boats. An updated repost from March 11, 2021

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