JOHN MENADUE. Fake news, spin and media complicity on border protection and boat arrivals.

In his desperate political situation, Scott Morrison last week became even more shrill in telling us ‘Bill Shorten is a clear and present threat to Australian security … and I’ll fight them [the ALP] using whatever tools or tactics I have available to me to ensure that we do not weaken border protection laws’. 

His tools and tactics are designed to appeal to fear and are based on deception and misrepresentation. 

The Coalition sees boat arrivals or the threat of boat arrivals as a means to advance its political interests. It is as sordid as that. As a ‘senior Liberal party official’ told the American Embassy some time ago, ‘the more boats that come, the better for us’.   

Consider the key issues and dates in this long story of lies and misrepresentation. In all of this, the main stream media and particularly the Canberra Press Gallery has failed to do its job.

  1. The Rudd government mistakenly abandoned the Pacific Solution when it came to government in 2007. As a result boat arrivals increased from a very low base, but the uptrend was clear.
  2. To address this problem, the Gillard government negotiated a Malaysian Arrangement in May 2011 that was designed to return initially up to 800 boat arrivals to Malaysia. In return, Australia would accept in an orderly programme 4,000 refugees from Malaysia. It was the beginning of regional cooperation to address people smuggling and forced migration in the region.But Opposition Leader Abbott, in cooperation with shadow Immigration Minister Morrison, and with the help of the Greens, defeated the legislation in the parliament which was necessary to give effect to the Malaysian Arrangement in light of a High Court decision.People smugglers saw the defeat of the legislation in the parliament as a green light to resume their trade. The result was that boat arrivals rose from 6 in May 2011 to 48 in July 2013.

    I can recall only one journalist who has taken an informed interest in the Malaysian Arrangement. In the Australian Financial Review on 7 December 2018, Phillip Coorey described Scott Morrison’s role in scuttling the Malaysian Arrangement and in giving the green light to the people smugglers. Coorey said

    “The last person who tried to embarrass a minority government by undermining border protection laws in Australia was Scott Morrison. It was 2011 and the High Court had knocked off what was regarded as the last chance Julia Gillard’s minority government had of stopping the boats – the Malaysia Solution. Designed by then departmental secretary, Andrew Metcalf, who had earlier designed the Pacific Solution for John Howard, the Malaysian plan involved flying newly arrived asylum seekers straight back to the source country, Malaysia. It was touted as the equivalent of turning boats back. … Morrison, then the Opposition Immigration spokesman, and his leader Tony Abbott weren’t prepared to see if it would work and then stepped in to block Gillard’s legislation by teaming with the Greens. … After the Malaysia plan foundered due to the action of Morrison and Abbott the flow of boats increased significantly, so did the deaths at sea. Another 600 people died. In 2016 after Morrison and Abbott fell out following the 2015 leadership coup, Morrison expressed regret for blocking the Malaysia plan and blamed Abbott. “I acted in accordance with my leader’s instructions” he said. He seemed to forget this on Thursday when reminded of his own actions seven years ago’.

  3. With the green light for people smugglers through the action of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, boat arrivals again increased steadily and then rapidly. They reached 48 by July 2013. The Rudd government then announced its policy that people arriving by boat after July 2013 would not be settled in Australia. As a result, the number of boat arrivals fell dramatically from 48 in July 2013 to 7 by December 2013.
  4. By the time the Abbott Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders came into operation in December 2013, boat arrivals were down dramatically. The so-called ‘stopping the boats’ and ‘turn backs’ we heard so much about and which the media uncritically accepted were really only about cleaning up a few loose ends. Operation Sovereign Borders was part of the end game. The game-changer was not the Coalition’s OSB, but the denial of settlement in Australia announced by Rudd in July 2013. (For further details on the Malaysian Arrangement, the Rudd policy on no settlement in Australia and Operation Sovereign Borders, see John Menadue and Peter Hughes. Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals. Part 1 and Part 2.
  5. While all the spin and marketing by Abbott, Morrison and Dutton about how brilliant they were on border protection was filling the media they failed to identify and curb a dramatic increase in asylum seekers coming by air in the last two years.
    As one door closes, another is often forced open. With boat arrivals stopped, asylum seekers started coming in increasing numbers by plane and rose from 8,587 in 2014/15 to 27,931 in 2017/18. This has been set out in credible detail in this blog by Abul Rizvi ‘Dutton Sets New Asylum Seeker Application Record’. Abul Rizvi was previously deputy secretary in the Department of Immigration.The way people smugglers operate in getting people into Australia by air is well known to experienced people in the Department of Immigration. But unfortunately many of those people have either left or been sidelined by the new leadership of the Department. The method is well-known. Applicants are encouraged by people smugglers to make bogus claims to obtain tourist, working holiday or student visas. On arrival in Australia, or shortly thereafter, they make a protection visa application.The dramatic increases in protection visa applications have come from residents in China and Malaysia.

Whilst Morrison and Dutton have been boasting their toughness and success in stopping the boats and protecting our borders, they have failed conspicuously to curb protection visa applicants who come by air. They were too busy politicking and ranting to see what was happening on their watch .

This is clear example of misrepresentation and lies about the so-called success of the Coalition on border protection. They have been outsmarted by people smugglers, particularly in China and Malaysia.

And most of our mainstream media is complicit. Having been conned for so long about border protection and boat arrivals, they find it embarrassing to admit the facts and rather than correct their mistakes they refuse to acknowledge new information that Abul Rizvi has now supplied. Our media has allowed Abbott, Morrison and Dutton to pedal false propaganda. It is not surprising that the Murdoch media has been part of the cover-up on border protection. But Fairfax and the ABC have a dismal record as well.

As the late US Senator Daniel Moynihan famously put it ‘ everyone is entitled to their own opinions but no one is entitled to their own facts’

Supported by a largely docile media Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have been inventing their own facts.

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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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