Monday, April 15, 2024

Dutton defies Border Force rebuke as he steps up attack on Labor over boat arrival

Before the revelation of the latest group on Saturday, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton defied a veiled rebuke by the head of Operation Sovereign Borders and doubled down on his assertion that the Albanese government had dismantled the country’s signature border protection policy.

After telling the media on Friday afternoon he was yet to be advised on the boat arrival, Albanese confirmed on Saturday morning he had been “fully briefed on what’s occurred”, and was “very comfortable” that Operation Sovereign Borders had been implemented. But he gave few details citing the standard line of not discussing operational matters.

Albanese also backed the rare intervention by Royal Australian Navy Rear-Admiral Brett Sonter, who warned that an “alternate narrative” about the status of Operation Sovereign Borders would be exploited by people smugglers. Sonter’s comments appeared to be directed at Dutton, whom he did not name, but who had asserted Australia’s border security settings were insufficient.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has doubled down on his claims the government has dismantled the nation’s border protection policy.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has doubled down on his claims the government has dismantled the nation’s border protection policy.Credit: Arsineh Houspian

“I do say for people in public life to have a look at the very clear, strong and unequivocal message sent by Rear-Admiral Sonter last night in the very clear statement that he made,” Albanese said in comments directed at Dutton, whom he did not name. “We do not seek to politicise national security issues. And it is unfortunate when any politician seeks to do so.”

But Dutton was undeterred by Sonter’s remarks and on Saturday made the incendiary claim that the prime minister had “dismantled Operation Sovereign Borders”, as he stepped up his attack over the boat arrival, the second to reach the Australian mainland since November.

“There’s just no question about the fact that Operation Sovereign Borders is not supported by the Albanese government,” Dutton said. “I ran Operation Sovereign Borders. I know exactly how these people smugglers work. They will react to a weak prime minister and to a weak minister. If they see vulnerabilities, they will exploit them, and that’s exactly what has happened here.”

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He further claimed that “it’s not true to say under this government that if you arrive in Australia, you won’t stay”, but provided no evidence for this. His office did not respond to requests to clarify this point.

The incident comes almost three months after the arrival of 12 people who landed a boat in another remote section of coastline in the Kimberley in late November. That group was promptly taken to the government’s offshore detention centre in Nauru.

The opposition said at the time that the November incident marked the first time in a decade that asylum seekers had reached the mainland by boat.

Albanese said on Saturday that the policy approach remained unchanged.

“Our position on Operation Sovereign Borders is very clear, and people who attempt to arrive here by boat will not settle here. Our position is clear,” he said.

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On Friday evening, Sonter, who commands the joint taskforce in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, which was put in place by the Abbott government, released a statement saying the “mission of Operation Sovereign Borders remains the same today as it was when it was established in 2013”.

“Any alternate narrative will be exploited by criminal people smugglers to deceive potential irregular immigrants and convince them to risk their lives and travel to Australia by boat,” Sonter said in the statement.

Dutton, when asked by reporters about whether he was suggesting the Operation Sovereign Borders commander was wrong, repeated his claims and linked the boat’s arrival to the government’s handling of immigration detainees released in the wake of a High Court decision last year.

“[The prime minister will] tell you that he supports Operation Sovereign Borders, but that’s not the actions that he’s taken: taking away temporary protection visas, and the way in which the government has conducted itself in the migration program, allowing 149 criminals out onto the street – people who are not citizens, who have committed terrible crimes – the people smugglers see all of that and they market it.”

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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