Paul Bongiorno: Peter Dutton’s border security offensive takes on water

Projection tells you just as much about the politician launching an attack as it does about the target – Peter Dutton on border security is a case in point.

Dutton says Australia is being led by a “weak prime minister” in a “weak government”.

It is as if he is hanging a lantern over his own vulnerabilities now and based on the latest revelations of his shortcomings as Minister for Home Affairs.

The Richardson Report found that on Dutton’s watch as Home Affairs Minister the department channelled hundreds of millions of dollars to dubious companies running off-shore detention.

The current minister Clare O’Neil told Parliament, “this report exposes the Leader of the Opposition as an absolute fraud, someone who oversaw a system funnelling taxpayer dollars into drugs, guns and human trafficking, while all the while marketing himself as a tough guy on borders”.

O’Neil cited the Parkinson and Nixon reviews, which she said show “the Opposition Leader drove the immigration system into a ditch” leaving a mess this government has to clean up.

Dutton’s position is further eroded by the fact his already depleted parliamentary party is bleeding members; the disendorsed Victorian MP Russell Broadbent has gone to the crossbench and now another disendorsed Liberal, Ian Goodenough from Western Australia, is considering following suit after his weekend rejection.

This is on top of the Opposition last week capitulating to the Albanese government’s rejigging of the stage-three tax cuts, making them fairer for an overwhelming majority of Australians.

It is a capitulation made all the more painful by the fact that Dutton unequivocally condemns the development not as a bad move to help people facing cost-of-living pressures but as an unforgivable “lie”.

Another opinion poll on Monday in the Australian Financial Review found significant majority support for the broken promise in the circumstances.

All of this with the Dunkley byelection in outer metropolitan Melbourne and on the Mornington Peninsula only days away, it is the sort of seat Dutton needs to win if the Coalition is ever to regain government.

Little wonder the Opposition Leader has returned to the glories of a former Coalition’s political killing ground in hyping the threat boat people pose to the security of our borders.

The Opposition Leader says the undetected arrival of 39 Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants in remote northern Western Australia is a “catastrophic failure of border security’’ by the Albanese Labor government.

Illegal “migrants” seems more accurate than “asylum seekers” because according to people who spoke with some of the men, they said they “didn’t want to live in Pakistan any more”.

The Bangladeshis reportedly wanted to go to Sydney to work so they could send money back home.

There must have been an element of deja vu for Dutton.

In August 2018, 17 Vietnamese men on a suspected illegal fishing boat slipped into the Daintree area of Far North Queensland undetected.

The Home Affairs Minister at the time was none other than the current Opposition Leader.

Dutton said the boat’s arrival was a result of surveillance failure, but it was the first boat to reach Australia in more than two years.

He also said it showed the people smugglers were still in business and in this he was helped by the Labor Opposition at the time that did not seek to score political points or send the would-be traders any encouragement to further test our defences.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia in the nine years of the Coalition, 46 boats were intercepted and 103 disrupted at the place of departure – a record neither confirmed or denied by the Coalition.

No one believes the boats were actually stopped.

Albanese accuses his opponent of being a “marketing tool” for the smugglers and called on him to stop leading a “cheer squad” for the criminal syndicates.

The Prime Minister said Dutton should heed the warning of the current head of Operation Sovereign Boarders, Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, about not letting his remarks to be exploited by people smugglers.

Dutton’s claims that the government has ripped $600 million out of Sovereign Borders is a stretch, to say the least.

The former long-time departmental head Mike Pezzullo debunked the allegation in Senate estimates last year, telling the Liberals’ James Paterson that he was using differences in budget projections and revisions in the mid-year reviews.

Pezzullo said he could go back over the nine years of the previous Coalition government’s budgets and mid-year reviews and come up with a much bigger number than Labor’s mooted cuts.

The Albanese government’s projected spending is higher than the Coalition’s by $470 million over the next four years and $252 million higher this year, according to the budget papers.

The voters in Dunkley have much more immediately on their minds than this confected security crisis.

But with the stakes so high, especially for Dutton, any scare is worth a run.

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

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