Peter Hughes and John Menadue posted two blogs in September 2015 (‘Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals’ Part 1 and Part 2) pointing out first, that Tony Abbott kept the door open for tens of thousands of boat arrivals by opposing legislation that would have enabled implementation of the September 2011 Malaysia Arrangement. Secondly, Abbott’s role in ‘stopping the boats’ was at the margins and overrated. John Menadue reports.

IN SPITE of clear evidence to the contrary, Malcolm Turnbull (again in his conversation to Donald Trump), Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have continued their spin about how they stopped the boats. They didn’t. Unfortunately, our mainstream media were duped in the first place by uncritically accepting the Coalition’s line in the confused period of the changeover of governments and in the drama and secrecy surrounding a small number of turnbacks.

Our main conclusion in those posts was that:

By the time Operation Sovereign Borders geared up for its first boat turnbacks on 19 December 2013, the number of boat arrivals was down from 48 in July 2013 to only seven in December 2013. OSB applied only to the tail end of the boat drama. The ‘game-changer’ was Kevin Rudd’s announcement in July 2013 that people arriving by boat after that time would not be settled in Australia. 

“The ‘game-changer’ was Kevin Rudd’s announcement in July 2013 that people arriving by boat after that time would not be settled in Australia” 

Arguably boat turnbacks would not have been successful at all without the July 2013 decision. For example, the Navy and Customs were able to turn back three boats in December 2013 after the introduction of OSB. It’s hard to believe that it would have been physically possible to turn back 48 boats if they had continued at the monthly rate that occurred in July 2013 and that Indonesia would have quietly acquiesced. 

In short, Tony Abbott in Opposition gave the green light to people smugglers by opposing the implementation of the Malaysia Arrangement in September 2011. In Government, Operation Sovereign Borders, had a marginal effect on boat arrivals. By the time OSB came into effect, the number of boat arrivals had been dramatically reduced.

The following data shows that the downward trend in boat arrivals began in August 2013. By October and November 2013 maritime asylum seeker arrivals had dropped by 90 per cent compared to the corresponding two months in 2012 (547 arrivals versus 5115 arrivals). These reductions occurred well before the first boat turnaround by the Coalition Government on 19 December 2013. See table below:

Number of illegal maritime arrivals who arrived in Australia by month (1 January 2011 to 31 December 2014), by port arrival date.

SIEVS/BOATS IMAs
2011 January 3 223
February 3 149
March 7 419
April 6 318
May 6 333
June 4 235
July 4 228
August 5 335
September 4 319
September Abbott failure to support Malaysian Arrangement
October 5 259
November 10 734
December 13 1,070
TOTAL 70 4,622
2012 January 5 301
February 9 849
March 3 110
April 11 837
May 16 1,286
June 24 1,642
July 31 1,756
August 37 2,078
September 31 2,062
October 47 2,452
November 44 2,663
December 18 1,017
TOTAL 276 17,053
2013 January 11 541
February 17 973
March 35 2,320
April 47 3,329
May 47 3,252
June 40 2,750
July 48 4,230
19 July 2013 Rudd announcement not to settle IMAs in Australia
August 25 1,585
September 15 829
October 5 339
November 5 208
December 7 355
19 Dec 2013 First Abbott turn-backs
TOTAL 302 20,711
2014 January 0 3
February 0 1
March 0 0
April 0 0
May 0 0
June 0 0
July 1 157
August 0 0
September 0 3
October 0 0
November 0 0
December 0 4
TOTAL 1 168

The source of this data is the Senate Select Committee on the Recent Allegations relating to Conditions and Circumstances at the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru: Submission 31 from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP). Crew are excluded. 

Note that the table refers to the number of ‘Illegal’ Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). ‘Illegals’ is not a term that we think is appropriate, but the term is used in the material from DIBP.

Three measures put in place by the Labor Government before the election caused the dramatic fall in the number arrivals, (allowing for a short time lag).

The first was “enhanced screening” of Sri Lankans and quick return of non-refugees to Sri Lanka.

The second was a decision by Indonesia, at Australia’s urging, that Iranians could not enter Indonesia without visas.

The third and most important was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on the 19 July 2013 that in future any persons coming by boat, who were found to be refugees, would not be settled in Australia. We may argue about the wisdom of that policy, but it effectively crippled the people-smugglers.

Fortuitously for the Abbott Government when it was sworn in on 18 September 2013, the flow of maritime arrivals was well on its way to being finished as a result of measures already taken.

By the time Operation Sovereign Borders geared up for its first boat turn-back on 19 December 2013, the number of boats was down from 48 in July to 7 in December.

Operation Sovereign Borders was applied to the “tail end” of a phenomenon that had largely been stopped. The game-changer was Kevin Rudd’s announcement in July 2013.

Arguably, boat turn backs would not have been “successful” at all without the July 2013 decision. For example, the Navy and Customs were able to turn back three boats in December 2013. It’s hard to believe that it would have been physically possible to turn back 48 boats if they had continued to arrive at the monthly rate that occurred in July 2013 and that Indonesia would have quietly acquiesced.

Tony Abbott’s role in “stopping the boats” was at the margins and vastly overrated.

John Menadue was Secretary, Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs 1980-83. Peter Hughes was a senior officer in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for 30 years until he retired as Deputy Secretary in 2011.

You can follow John Menadue on Twitter @JohnMenadueThis article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations and is republished with permission.