Paul Bongiorno: Toxic immigration debate to dog government into next year

Embroiled in the controversy of criminals release from detainment under court order, Anthony Albanese has promised a sweeping review of immigration policies.

Embroiled in the controversy of criminals release from detainment under court order, Anthony Albanese has promised a sweeping review of immigration policies. Photo: TND/Getty

If Anthony Albanese believed in Santa Claus there is no doubt top of his Christmas wish list would be the end of the unedifying stoush over immigration detention.

But it is his government’s panicked response to the High Court which has guaranteed this will not happen.

Already, before the Parliament debates a new law to set up a community safety scheme of preventative detention, its first effort criminalising breach of visa conditions faces two High Court challenges that will be heard next year.

One of them argues that requiring an ankle bracelet is a punitive restriction of freedom and amounts to a continuation of indefinite detention.

So paranoid is Labor over border security and the thought of a new armada of boat people, it capitulated to Peter Dutton’s original demands to legislate some way around the court’s release of what he called a cohort of “hard-core criminals” – paedophiles, wife beaters, murderers and a contract killer.

Instead of tackling head-on Dutton’s confected emergency, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil gave it credence by saying if she had her way all would remain in detention – she made no distinction between the most unsavoury types and those who had committed no crime at all.

Legal risk

It was always legally risky passing any sort of legislation before the High Court released the reasons for its unanimous decision providing guardrails for the Parliament.

According to one highly placed government source, all the Albanese cabinet wanted to do was get the issue out of the news as quickly as possible. However, its haste only prolonged the agony with the bill containing two glaring omissions.

Last week the government brought fix-up amendments into the house criminalising breaches of bridging visa conditions for domestic violence perpetrators approaching their victims and for paedophiles going anywhere near a school.

The Opposition voted against these amendments, sparking a heated exchange in last Thursday’s question time that is still exercising many on social media and being raised in radio and TV interviews.

O’Neil said the Opposition led by Peter Dutton “came into the Parliament and voted to protect paedophiles over children”.

She repeated it, “voted to protect paedophiles over children”.

At the request of Dutton and one of his more avid factional mates Michael Sukkar, the Speaker asked O’Neil to withdraw “to assist the house”.

Paranoia evident

She did but the follow up, particularly in large sections of the media, helps explains Labor’s paranoia when it comes to this issue.

There is no room for nuance and even embarrassingly ignorant claims from the Liberals that the government only needed to let out of detention the complainant in the High Court case was endlessly recycled.

O’Neil was universally attacked by the right-wing shock jocks on talkback radio, and across the Murdoch media with a fevered pile on from commentators in The Australian.

Shadow immigration minister Dan Tehan said her slur was the worst he had heard in his time in Parliament. He has very selective hearing.

Nowhere was there any mention of Dutton’s hypocrisy and crocodile tears.

Apology stunt

The Opposition Leader affected a brave face when the Nine Network’s Karl Stefanovic sympathised with his demands for an apology.

Dutton somewhat disingenuously said he had a “thick skin” but truthfully claimed to give as good as he gets but added he didn’t think Albanese was “man enough to apologise” for the government’s slur.

All of this from a man who is on the record many times accusing Labor, Albanese and even the Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, of siding with paedophiles and sex offenders.

The fact remains Dutton, to the surprise of some of his backbench, did lead them in voting down the amendments that inspired O’Neil’s attacks.

Dutton now says he did it because he wanted to see the court’s reasons, which undermines his criticism of the government’s unpreparedness in not having a bill ready to go as soon as the decision was handed down three weeks ago without the reasons.

The incoherent opportunism is breathtaking.

Unpopularity contest

But the opinion polls suggest Dutton has managed to bring Albanese down to his levels of unpopularity.

The Sunday Telegraph did its best to assist Dutton in the project, publishing a summary of focus groups conducted by RedBridge in five electorates, three held by the Greens and only one by Labor.

One of the 12 people quizzed expressed the view that Albanese was a “weak beta male who was a follower instead of a leader”.

But RedBridge pollster Kos Samaras says the big takeout of the exercise was that these voters saw Albanese as bad, but Dutton as worse. They are unlikely to switch their votes to the Liberal leader.

The latest Resolve Poll in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age bears this out, according to psephologist Kevin Bonham. When he crunches its raw numbers Labor leads on a two-party-preferred basis 55.1 per cent to 44.9 per cent. This would give the party its best result since 1943.

But this poll did see a slide in support for the government over the past month, which does coincide with the High Court’s bombshell and there is a distinct possibility of more disruption on the issue next year.

The Dutton opposition is sure to pass the amended immigration bill with preventative detention later in the week, but it won’t mind if the court strikes it down next year.

So much closer to the next election it would welcome such an outcome.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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