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“Stop the boats.” Is Australia seeing a sudden uptick in asylum seekers, fishermen or fear-mongering?

by Andrew Gardiner | Nov 30, 2023 | Government, Latest Posts

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and the Coalition are fanning fears about a “new wave of boat people”. Andrew Gardiner checks out the claims, and Australia’s history of political fear-mongering.

Consumers of News Corp outlets and morning radio could be forgiven for thinking Australia is again being “swamped by Asians” under a soft-on-borders Labor Government after one boat with 12 asylum seekers aboard made it to the northern coast of WA last week. The asylum seekers, mostly from Bangladesh, were the first Unauthorised Maritime Arrivals (UMAs) to reach our shores undetected since Labor came to power in May 2022. 

On the face of it, 12 UMAs reaching the Australian coastline hardly represent an influx, but it generated a surge in interest from some predictable players. Wasting no time, 2GB’s Ben Fordham picked out Opposition Veterans Affairs spokesman Barnaby Joyce for comment. 

Labor has “taken (its) finger off the pulse,” Joyce, venturing outside his portfolio, told Fordham. “It’s started again; we have got to have a government that is on the front foot” on boat arrivals, he added. 

The loudest alarm bells came from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, which – fresh from a page one headline suggesting the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, had “lost track of crims” released under a recent High Court decision – proceeded to run a two-page article on Wednesday, headlined “a new wave of Boat People.”

Liberal Senator James Paterson (above) was extensively quoted in Wednesday’s Telegraph article, as was Barnaby Joyce (right) on 2GB.

The article, by Angira Bharadwaj, floats speculation that an influx of fishermen heading to the region could open up “a potential new avenue for people smuggling.” “Boat hides (have been cut) into the mangroves to avoid authorities,” an insider “with intimate knowledge of the new arrivals” told Bharadwaj. 

“It’s good they were dropped off (at WA’s Anjo Peninsula) because 200km [in] either direction there is no civilisation. How many others have been dropped along the coast that have perished?” asked the source, implying without evidence that more asylum seeker boats might have gotten through. 

Claims vs reality

Picking up the narrative, Opposition Home Affairs spokesman, Senator James Paterson, suggested people smugglers would be incentivised by the Government’s February decision to allow 19,000 Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders a pathway to permanent residency. “This was the tenth people smuggling venture to attempt to arrive illegally since (Labor’s election 18 months ago) and sadly I expect we will see more in the months ahead,” Paterson said. 

Paterson’s claim of 10 boats in 18 months must have come as a surprise to the Australian Border Force, whose monthly reports over that period show only two boats (with a grand total of 23 asylum seekers, including the Anjo Peninsular group) were either intercepted or reached our shores for processing as UMAs. Paterson seems to have included boats that were turned back to their ports of origin (usually near Indonesia or Sri Lanka) none of whose constituents came close to troubling our books. 

That’s 23 UMAs in 18 months. Hardly the “new wave of Boat People” the Telegraph declared unless you muddy the waters by including what Bharadwaj called “a dramatic escalation in Indonesian fishermen heading to the region.” 

Observers say such a confusion of the issues is disingenuous. “Indonesian fishermen may pose a threat to this country’s natural resources, but not to the integrity of its immigration system,” one immigration lawyer said. 

The Telegraph’s “insider source” admits the fishermen “come in little 30-40 foot blue boats” which couldn’t hold more than a few asylum seekers at a time, and doesn’t explain how humble, poorly-resourced fishermen from such islands as Timor or Sulawesi could reinvent themselves as helmsmen of a sophisticated, multi-country people smuggling operation.  

Could it be that their “boat hides” in the mangroves were to conceal illegal fishing rather than people smuggling? “Certainly, this month’s arrival seems to be an isolated incident,” ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre expert Andrew Carr told MWM.  

The Tampa Affair of 2001 (above) showed the politics of fear can be a vote-winner. Image: SMH.

Since Federation, fear campaigns have been an integral part of politics in Australia. From the red scare of the 1950s to “Mediscare” in 2016, fear of the unknown or of change itself has impacted elections time and again. 

It appears our newest fear campaign – against an “Indonesian Armada” of two boats over 18 months – is an attempted rerun of the Tampa Affair, which turned a likely Labor win into a third term for John Howard in 2001. Fear of the “other” (in 2001 it was Afghans following the September 11 attacks) yielded a rich crop of votes for Howard, who went on to become our second longest-serving Prime Minister. 

Unless an actual “Armada” appears, this latest fear campaign appears to be both media-driven and meritless, observers say. “The Coalition’s policies, under Operation Sovereign Borders, have been continued by Labor and continue to be successful,” human rights lawyer Alison Battisson told MWM. 

“For example, those 12 asylum seekers [from this month’s Anjo Peninsula landing] are already being processed offshore on Nauru,” Battisson said. “It’s business as usual [and] any reporting to the contrary, which creates fear in the community when there’s no need for fear, is dangerous and irresponsible.”

Murdoch outlets also blamed Labor after the High Court ruled indefinite detention of asylum seekers was illegal. Images: News Corp.

Murdoch outlets also blamed Labor after the High Court ruled indefinite detention of asylum seekers was illegal. Images: News Corp.

On that other asylum seeker controversy in the headlines, the High Court’s November 8 ruling that indefinite detention for “higher risk” detainees was illegal, Canberra is rushing to implement a preventative detention regime for the “worst” of these asylum seekers (typically people with past records for violent or sexual offences) after the court published its reasons for the decision. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said the government was “moving quickly to finalise a tough preventative detention regime before parliament rises” for the year on December 7.

The issue had been seized upon by the same politicians and media outlets as further proof that Labor was “soft on border enforcement” and couldn’t be entrusted on public safety.  With an election due by May 2025, the government will be hoping no more boats appear on the horizon, and that its preventative detention laws – decried by some lawyers as a draconian imposition on those who’d already served their time – would neutralise an issue that has beleaguered Labor for decades. 

An Adelaide-based graduate in Media Studies, with a Masters in Social Policy, I was an editor who covered current affairs, local government and sports for various publications before deciding on a change-of-vocation in 2002.

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