John Menadue and Peter Hughes. Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals. Part 1

Dec 30, 2015

Reposted from 22/09/2015

How Tony Abbott helped to keep the door open for people smugglers.

The ABC provided us with excellent coverage of the Turnbull-Abbott shoot out, but the various commentators still swallowed the myth that Tony Abbott stopped the boats. That is a great piece of spin, but the reality is different.

This blog on 26 July 2015 argued that Tony Abbott did not stop the boats. The game changer was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on 19 July 2013, two months before the election, that any persons arriving irregularly by boat would not be settled in Australia. Boat arrivals fell quickly and dramatically as a result of this announcement, coming on top of other measures the Labor government had already taken. We will update that blog in the next day or so in Part 2.

For the present, however, our argument is that Tony Abbott kept the door open for tens of thousands of boat arrivals in the first place. His failure to support the Malaysia Arrangement in September 2011 resulted in the surge of boat arrivals over the next two years.

Consider key dates. In May 2011 the Australian and Malaysian governments announced an ‘in principle’ arrangement that up to 800boat arrivals would be transferred from Australia to Malaysia for their asylum claims to be heard and, in response, Australia would be prepared to accept 4,000 refugees from Malaysia. The arrangement with Malaysia was signed on 25 July 2011. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave it qualified support.

At that stage, people arriving irregularly by boat were running at about 2-300 per month. The table below shows the numbers at that time and what followed in the following 28 months.

Number of illegal maritime arrivals who arrived in Australia by month            (1 January 2011 to 31 December 2014), by port arrival date. 

2011 January 3 223
February 3 149
March 7 419
April 6 318
May 6 333
June 4 235
July 4 228
August 5 335
September 4 319
September Abbott failure to support Malaysian Arrangement
October 5 259
November 10 734
December 13 1,070
TOTAL 70 4,622
2012 January 5 301
February 9 849
March 3 110
April 11 837
May 16 1,286
June 24 1,642
July 31 1,756
August 37 2,078
September 31 2,062
October 47 2,452
November 44 2,663
December 18 1,017
TOTAL 276 17,053
2013 January 11 541
February 17 973
March 35 2,320
April 47 3,329
May 47 3,252
June 40 2,750
July 48 4,230
19 July 2013 Rudd announcement not to settle IMAs in Australia
August 25 1,585
September 15 829
October 5 339
November 5 208
December 7 355
19 Dec 2013 First Abbott turn-backs
TOTAL 302 20,711
2014 January 0 3
February 0 1
March 0 0
April 0 0
May 0 0
June 0 0
July 1 157
August 0 0
September 0 3
October 0 0
November 0 0
December 0 4
TOTAL 1 168

The source of this data is the Senate Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru: Submission 31 from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP). Crew are excluded. 

Note that the table refers to the number of ‘Illegal’ Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). ‘Illegals’ is not a term that we think is appropriate, but the term is used in the material from DIBP.

On 31 August 2011 the High Court found against the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship’s powers to transfer people to Malaysia under the Arrangement. In response, on 21 September 2011, the Gillard government introduced legislation – the Migration Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 – which was designed to modify those parts of the Migration Act which caused the problem in the High Court. There was strong opposition to the Bill in the House of Representatives by the Coalition led by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison who were bitterly critical of Malaysia. Bandt (Greens), Katter and Wilkie also opposed the Bill. Oakeshott said he would also oppose the Bill if there were not specific amendments. As the Bill was doomed, the government decided not to proceed with the legislation. (It was subsequently passed by the parliament in August 2012 after the Houston Report).

There were some lags in the response of asylum seekers and people smugglers to gear up to the opportunities the Coalition and others had left open for them. The timing of boat arrivals were also affected by bad weather and heavy seas, typically in the period December-March.. Surges of people  of different ethnic background can also change the dynamics of people flow. But it is clear that after the legislation stalled, there was a substantial increase in boat arrivals, particularly from Sri Lanka and Iran. People smugglers saw the High Court decision and the failure of the Australian Parliament to amend the Migration Act as a clear signal that their business could proceed.

From November 2011 monthly asylum seeker arrivals began to trend up again. In the month of May 2012 they reached 1286 and, allowing for seasonal variations, kept rising inexorably to a monthly peak of 4230 in July 2013.

The Coalition had made clear its opposition in every possible way to the Malaysia Arrangement. That left the way open for a dramatic increase in boat arrivals.

The Coalition under Tony Abbott was not interested in stopping the boats at that time. Its primary interest was to stop Labor stopping the boats – and they succeeded. Wikileaks revealed that a key Liberal Party strategist in 2009 told the US Embassy that ‘the more boats that come the better’.

Political objectives drove Tony Abbott’s actions with little regard for the national interest and or the government’s attempts, in cooperation with Malaysia, to start building a regional cooperation framework to manage boat arrivals.

There can be no doubt that the implementation of the Malaysia Arrangement, in the context of the numbers at the time, would have stopped the flow of maritime arrivals. It simply removed all incentive to make the last leg of the journey. It is unlikely that all of the 800 places would have been used. Coalition turn-backs have amounted to less than 700 people over a period of two years according to a recent announcement by the Minister Dutton.

Tony Abbott must bear some responsibility for the more than 32,000 people who arrived irregularly by sea between September 2011 when he frustrated the Malaysia Arrangement and mid-2013 when harsher measures were reluctantly taken by the Labor government.

As we mentioned above, we will also be updating an earlier blog that shows that Tony Abbott’s actions after the 2013 election were not the key to stopping the boats. The new Abbott Government dealt with the tail end of a dramatically reduced flow of people, but the real game changer was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on 19 July 2013 that any further boat arrivals would not be settled in Australia.

The secrecy and drama surrounding a small number of boat turn-backs created the impression that they were the decisive factor, but, it’s time for a cooler assessment of the facts.

John Menadue was Secretary Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 1980-83. Peter Hughes was a senior officer in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for 30 years until he retired as Deputy Secretary in 2011.


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