John Menadue. Abbott lectures London on how to ‘stop the boats’.

Tony Abbott has been at it again, this time in London, claiming that he stopped the boats and that Europeans should follow suit. It is an oft repeated untruth that he stopped the boats. His one-liners are not supported by the facts. But the lie is deeply imbedded.

Last month, Peter Hughes and I posted two articles on ‘Slogans vs Facts on boat arrivals’. Part 1 was entitled ‘How Tony Abbott helped to keep the door open for people-smugglers. Part 2 was entitled ‘Tony Abbott did not stop the boats

Let me briefly summarise a few facts from these two posts.

First, the Coalition decision to oppose legislation in September 2011 to implement the Malaysian Arrangement gave the green light for people-smugglers to expand their business. People arriving by boat increased from 319 in September 2011 to 4,230 in July 2013. By opposing the implementation of the Malaysian Arrangement the Coalition showed that it did not want to stop the boats, but for political reasons wanted to stop Labor stopping the boats.

Secondly, the rapid decline in people arriving by boat began in July 2013 when Kevin Rudd announced that in future no people arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia. As a result people arriving on 47 boats fell from 4,230 in July 2013 to 355 on 7 boats in December 2013 when Tony Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders and boat turn-backs commenced. By the time OSB came into effect, boat arrivals had turned into a trickle. The game was almost over. Tony Abbott made a quite marginal contribution to stopping the boats. With boat arrivals down to 7 in December 2013, turn-backs were possible. They would not have been possible if they had been running at 47 a month as they were in July 2013.

I often ponder why the untruths about boat arrivals have become so embedded and accepted in public discourse. I suggest there are three main reasons.

First, Tony Abbott was able to effectively exploit xenophobia. He was very successful with his one liners in many areas. He did not bother to look at the facts, but successfully prosecuted a successful public relations and political campaign. Perceptions counted more than facts.

Second, the ALP has been reluctant to argue that its hard-line policies had in effect stopped the boats. It was fearful of offending many of its traditional supporters who favoured a more generous approach to asylum seekers.

Thirdly, under-resourced journalists didn’t bother to check the facts and they locked themselves in to uncritical acceptance of government propaganda. They now find it hard to accept that they were conned.

The facts are clear. In September 2011 Tony Abbott’s policies gave a green light to people smugglers. The dramatic fall in boat arrivals commenced many months before Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders came into effect.

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John Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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