20 February 2024

Albanese and Dutton at odds over effectiveness of Operation Sovereign Borders

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Border Force Cape class patrol boat

A Border Force Cape class patrol boat. Photo: ADF.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton have amped up a slanging match over the arrival of 39 people by boat in the remote northwest of Western Australia last Friday (16 February).

The spat comes in the wake of appeals by the Commissioner of Operation Sovereign Borders to not politicise the previously bipartisan policies of deterring and deporting asylum seekers who arrive by boat and previous undertakings by both sides to not comment on operational matters.

The boat carrying 39 people – reportedly mainly Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi nationals – seemingly slipped the Australian Border Force’s Operation Sovereign Borders and Defence’s Operation Resolute patrols. Local residents found them in two groups several kilometres apart on 16 February.

It is reportedly the 12th boat arrival since Labor took power nearly two years ago and the second since November. All passengers have either returned home voluntarily or been transported to Nauru to eventually settle in a third country.

In a brief statement, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Rear Admiral Brett Sonter confirmed the operation and tried to pre-empt any political commentary.

“The mission of Operation Sovereign Borders remains the same today as it was when it was established in 2013 – protect Australia’s borders, combat people smuggling in our region and, importantly, prevent people from risking their lives at sea,” he said.

“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.”

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But the Commander’s plea seems to have gone unheard by Mr Dutton, who – despite being in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders under the first Morrison Government – has sought to politically exploit the boat’s arrival.

“For a boat, obviously a fairly well-sized boat, to arrive with over 40 passengers, for that not to be detected, it tells you that the surveillance flights or the surveillance that was in place under Operation Sovereign Borders is not there at the moment,” he told Sydney’s Radio 2GB on Monday (19 February) morning.

“The thing to understand here is that the people smugglers, even if they’re coming from a fishing village or they’re an impoverished part of Southeast Asia, they are sophisticated crime syndicates, and they move people around … they just see human beings as another commodity, and they’re business people,” he added.

“They look at every word the Prime Minister says, they look for a little chink in the armour, and then they package that up in social media messages or a text message out to potential clients who are sitting in a village somewhere waiting to hop on a boat.

“If they can successfully tell people that they’re going to land in Australia and stay here permanently, then people will pay money.”

Mr Dutton’s comments go against Border Force’s mandate, which says, “Australia’s tough border protection policies means no one who travels unauthorised by boat will ever be allowed to settle permanently in Australia. The only way to travel to Australia is legally, with an Australian visa.”

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Mr Dutton also accused the Government of “ripping $600 million out of Border Force”, reducing surveillance flights and patrol boat hours at sea, and abolishing temporary protection visas.

“There will be a price to pay for that, and unfortunately, that’s what we’re seeing at the moment,” he told 2GB.

On Monday, the Prime Minister was asked to respond to Mr Dutton’s comments in Perth.

“Complete nonsense once again here from Peter Dutton,” Mr Albanese said.

“No responsibility. And indeed, the head of Operation Sovereign Borders has been very clear in his comments over the weekend in calling out behaviour which would draw into question … [it] can’t be seen as anything other than encouraging people smuggling operations.

“The people who were unauthorised arrivals into Western Australia just days ago now find themselves on Nauru and they will not be settled here in Australia,” he added.

“Are these people on temporary protection visas? No, they’re on Nauru.

“By definition, Peter Dutton’s arguments are absurd because they don’t match what’s actually happened.”

The funding issue was raised at a Senate Estimates hearing in May 2023, when former Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezullo said that the $600 million was over the forward estimates. He noted that actual Operation Sovereign Borders’ spending was always higher than forecast and was reviewed twice-yearly in the budget and in the mid-year economic update to ensure operational requirements were met.

In its 2022-23 Annual Report, Border Force recorded a 14 per cent reduction in surveillance flying hours and a six per cent decrease in maritime patrol days over the previous year due to maintenance issues and crew shortages but said the Department was mitigating those issues.

Original Article published by Andrew McLaughlin on Riotact.

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