Abbott: I Was Right on National Security

Record of Australian Extraterritorial Migration Controls.

Blog Post


2016-03-28 03:21:50

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott defends his migration control policies and co-operation with Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

“I suspect that the Malaysian prime minister was pleasantly surprised with my apology for the way his country had become collateral damage in an Australian domestic argument over people-smuggling. Likewise, I’m sure that the Sri Lankan president was pleased that Australia didn’t join the human rights lobby against the tough but probably unavoidable actions taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars. Certainly, both countries became even stronger partners in the Abbott government’s most urgent initial task: to end the people-smuggling trade that had resulted in more than 1200 deaths at sea, more than 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat and more than $10 billion in border protection budget blow-outs.

In just one month, July 2013, there had been more than 4000 illegal arrivals by boat. Although the Rudd government’s belated announcement of the resumption of offshore processing had reduced the flow to 1500 in September, this could easily have been just a pause before a fresh onslaught that would overwhelm the holding capacity of Nauru and Manus Island. At this scale, the people-smuggling trade was not just a humanitarian disaster; it had become a challenge to our national security. A country that can’t control its borders sooner or later loses control of its future.

Even before being sworn in as prime minister, I had begun meeting with the key border protection agencies. It was pretty obvious that the problem had not been the professional commitment of officials but a former government that couldn’t quite work out whether it wanted to protect our borders or to parade its compassion credentials. I was more than happy to let the officials know, in absolutely unambiguous terms, that the most compassionate thing we could do was stop the deaths at sea by ending the people-smuggling trade. That was their duty: to stop the boats by all lawful means notwithstanding fierce controversy at home and possible tension abroad.

Before the election, the Coalition had said that we’d stop the boats by re-introducing temporary protection visas to deny illegal boat arrivals permanent residency; by restoring offshore processing to deny illegal arrivals access to Australia; and by turning boats around where it was safe to do so. Everyone, including the Indonesians, knew what we had in mind.

As a very early sign of good faith to the Indonesians, I had West Papuan activists, who’d arrived in the Torres Strait claiming asylum, quietly returned to Papua New Guinea. A protest boat seeking to sail from Australia to Indonesian West Papua was prevailed upon never to leave. Quite rightly, the Indonesians regarded vessels leaving Australia for Indonesia without lawful purpose as an affront to their sovereignty—and that exactly matched my government’s attitude to vessels bound for Australia in defiance of our law.

Within four months, what was claimed to be impossible had actually come about. Since January 2014, there have been no successful people-smuggling ventures to Australia. There were three essential elements in this success: first, a unified chain of command through Operation Sovereign Borders to cut through the different priorities of different Australian government agencies; second, the refusal to discuss operational matters on the water to deny people-smugglers the oxy­gen of publicity; and third, and most importantly, the availability of big orange lifeboats to make turn-arounds work when people-smugglers scuttled their boats.

These were all critical improvements to the Howard government policies that had successfully stopped a much smaller influx of boat people twelve years earlier. Under the Howard government, there had been five successful boat turn-arounds from ten attempts. Under the Abbott government, every turn-around succeeded because there was always the option of providing a boat to ensure that would-be illegal immigrants ended up back where they’d started.

At numerous stages, Operation Sovereign Borders could have foundered. Some media claimed that harsh treatment of boat people was being hidden. Some government lawyers claimed that the operation was beyond power. Some senior officials fretted about the consequences for our relationship with Indonesia. But the government simply had to stop the boats—our national interest and our self-respect as a country demanded it—and succeed we did through an indefatigable resolve to get it done. This determination to make a difference, not just to strike a pose or to indulge in gesture, was at the heart of everything the Abbott government did.”

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