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Peter Dutton's trifecta of border protection failures

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Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is proud of his achievements, despite indications that he is failing in his role (Image by Dan Jensen)

Statistics show that Peter Dutton is failing to handle immigration affairs and is tarnishing Australia's reputation as a humane sanctuary, writes Abul Rizvi.

FOR YEARS NOW, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has boasted of his border protection achievements. But a brief examination of the details of his boast shows that while he has excelled in gratuitous cruelty, dog-whistling and wasting taxpayer’s money, his actual border protection record is weak. He has given us the trifecta of weak borders, inhumane treatment of genuine refugees and a reputation as racists.

John Menadue has shown that it was not Dutton, or even Scott Morrison, that stopped the boats, but that these had largely been stopped before Tony Abbott became Prime Minister. Menadue has also shown that Abbott, supported by Morrison as Shadow Minister, tore down the Malaysia Agreement that gave us the best chance of stopping the boats in a humane and cost-effective way.

What Dutton has given us is a totally unnecessary delay in resettling the refugees on Manus and Nauru at an extraordinary human and financial cost. Those costs continue to be incurred for no good policy reason. John Howard and Philip Ruddock showed that resettling refugees from Manus and Nauru in Australia and New Zealand would not restart the boats.

Dutton’s treatment of the Biloela family, compared to his treatment of the au pairs of rich people with links to Dutton, shows he has no understanding of the vital role of ministerial discretion. If he had only used that discretion when it first became clear the family had strong support from the Biloela community, he would have not only saved the family from unnecessary pain but also saved some $30 million in taxpayers’ money. That could have been achieved with no chance of restarting the boats.

We also now know of Dutton’s incompetence in allowing the biggest surge in non-genuine asylum seekers in Australia’s history. A surge that he describes as a red herring while his junior Minister Alan Tudge tries to pretend he is taking effective action to address the surge. A surge that Dutton has tried to address by jacking up visitor refusal rates in a blunt and largely ineffective way that is costing our tourism industry over $500 million per annum.

To distract from his failures, Dutton is now advertising that his department has cancelled the visas of over 5,000 foreign criminals. But in his boast, he fails to point out that in the last two years there has been a major fall in the number of people whose visas were cancelled under the character provisions. These have declined from 1,278 in 2016-17 to just 943 in 2018-19.

Dutton also fails to mention that 234 of these character cancellations were revoked in 2018-19 — in other words, the original visa was reinstated. Similarly, Dutton makes no mention of the fact refusal of visa applications on character grounds have fallen from 631 in 2016-17 to 268 in 2018-19.

Or that the number of onshore student visa cancellations has fallen from 5,102 in 2016-17 to 2,707 in 2018-19. Or, indeed, that the overall number of visa cancellations has fallen from 62,071 in 2015-16 to 53,993 in 2018-19.

But his failure on border protection does not stop there. In an extraordinary development, the number of overstayers and others removed from Australia has fallen sharply in 2018-19 to 9,195 from 14,721 in 2016-17 (see Chart 1).

This is at a time when we are seeing a rapid increase in the number of refused asylum seekers at both the primary stage and at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. According to the Department of Home Affairs December report to the Senate, there are over 20,000 such people in Australia ready for removal.

This raises the question of whether the Government is making any effort to locate, detain and remove this rapidly growing cohort of refused asylum seekers.

Source: Data.gov.au, Department of Home Affairs

The evidence would suggest the Government is totally disinterested in this. Why would that be? Could it be the Government is concerned about a negative reaction from farmers and other employers if the Government takes action to remove these workers?

Dutton has tried to suggest the surge in non-genuine asylum applications is to be expected as it is just part of the general rise in temporary movements into Australia. If that argument holds, we should be seeing cancellations, visa refusals on character, removals and returns increasing. But no — these are in strong decline.

The most likely explanation for this range of extraordinary declines is a reduction in resources available for these core immigration functions.

Dutton seems unable to comprehend that there are consequences from wasting billions of dollars in offshore detention. Or in spending $180 million on reopening and reclosing the Christmas Island Detention Centre for nothing more than a political photo opportunity, even if that is for the Prime Minister.

The fact is the Department of Finance rules require ministers to find offsetting savings for these types of discretionary expenditures.

It is highly likely these costs are being paid for through reductions in resources for standard immigration functions.

That reduction in resources has implications for border protection and the integrity of the immigration system.

It’s time Dutton boasted less about his border protection record and started to look for ways to secure savings to invest in standard immigration functions and actual border protection.

An obvious option would be to close Manus and Nauru and resettle the refugees.

Abul Rizvi is a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration and is currently undertaking a PhD on Australia’s immigration policies. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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