Paul Bongiorno
Turnbull, Dutton stick to Abbott refugee strategy

Back in 2008, while he was still opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull was tackled in his party room over his ramping up of the boat people issue. His predecessor, Brendan Nelson, had agreed with the Rudd government’s dismantling of the Howard-era Pacific Solution. Nauru was closed. But as the boats began to trickle back, Turnbull was asked by a backbench Liberal why he was passing up the chance to restore the bipartisanship that existed on refugees before Howard torpedoed it in 2001. In the face of a still dominant Labor government, Turnbull responded: “It’s all we’ve got.”

Eight years later, we are seeing a dramatic replay. If there were any doubts the Liberals are in mortal fear of losing the election, this past week should dispel them. Gone is the positive, sunny uplands, agile and reasonable national leader; in his place, a version of the divisive hardline Tony Abbott, the man he replaced promising a better way. 

Turnbull’s visit to Darwin on Tuesday set the scene for his immigration minister, Peter Dutton, to appeal to the nation’s darkest xenophobia later that night. With the poll average stuck on 50-50 and with two – Essential and Morgan – putting the Labor Party in a winning position, it was time to get serious on an issue that works like a treat for the Coalition. Many Liberals had hoped that issue would be the economy, but with a budget that has failed to excite, the old faithful of national security is, to use Turnbull’s earlier assessment, all they’ve got.

And make no mistake: Labor is winning the argument on the budget and fairness. It has been able to starkly paint the Coalition “plan” as tax cuts for the rich and nothing for the rest. Bill Shorten and his treasury spokesman, Chris Bowen, have proved far more effective in shaping the debate than Turnbull and his treasurer, Scott Morrison. The Australian Financial Review reported findings by JWS Research that voters simply have not noticed the $3 billion given to low-income earners and women for retirement savings, funded by a crackdown on concessions for the superannuation of millionaires.

So standing on a wharf in Darwin in front of a dark blue Border Force patrol boat, the prime minister identified with the success of Tony Abbott’s secretive but very effective “stop the boats” policy. He conveniently ignored that Shorten, too, has embraced the key elements of that policy – turn-backs and offshore processing – and steered the policy through Labor’s 2015 national conference in the face of that dissent. Instead he homed in on the concerns of 25 Labor candidates about Nauru and Manus. “It’s the same old Labor,” Turnbull said. “You cannot trust them on border protection. They have proved themselves to be incapable of protecting our borders in government, and now in opposition, as we approach an election, they are riddled with dissent.” 

But why wouldn’t intelligent, compassionate Australians – Liberal, Labor or whatever – be concerned about the damage being done to innocent men, women and children in indefinite detention on remote and inhospitable islands? Labor’s policy is to beef up support for the United Nations and to make a greater effort in relocating the many found to be genuine refugees. That is, relocate them anywhere other than Australia – something this government has not been able to do, almost certainly because no one else in the region has any sympathy for Australia’s policies. There’s little doubt this would be just as difficult for Labor.

But niceties disappear in an election campaign. Labor, Turnbull says, is “crab-walking” towards the Greens. The PM appeared to be sprinting away from the “sympathy and grieving” he spoke about on Radio National before assuming the top job, for the “mental anguish so many on Nauru and Manus Island have had inflicted on them”.

It is in this context that Peter Dutton launched his “children overboard moment”. That’s when Howard and his immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, during the 2001 election campaign, falsely demonised boat people as child killers “you wouldn’t want in this country”.

Dutton told Sky News’s Paul Murray that letting in 50,000 more refugees, as the Greens are proposing, would be an economic disaster. “For many people they won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English, and this is a difficulty because the Greens are very close to the CFMEU, as obviously the Labor Party is, and their affiliations with the union movement obviously are well known.” He went on to say “there would be huge cost, and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that, that’s the scenario”.

How an immigration minister could be so ignorant of the economic benefits of migrants to this nation is one thing. But why he would also want to come so close to stirring racial hatred or, at best, resentment is truly appalling.

Labor campaign headquarters was at first perplexed on how to respond. In two elections, Australians have marked down humanitarian concerns as weakness, a sentiment Dutton and Turnbull were now exploiting. Labor’s hard heads were well and truly aware of the electoral toxicity of this issue for the party. Back in 2001, Kim Beazley was convinced the late-breaking debunking of the “children overboard” story ironically helped stall his campaign. It again put the issue in the spotlight.

Shorten threw caution to the wind and directly challenged Turnbull to reject Dutton’s remarks. He said the minister did not just insult refugees, “he insulted millions of migrants who’ve contributed to making this a truly great country”. Then he zeroed in on the prime minister himself: “If he has any shred of self-respect left on this matter, [he] must immediately condemn Mr Dutton’s comments.” 

Shorten said he was doubtful Turnbull would confront Dutton and even raised the prospect that the PM had fed the lines to his minister. This reflected the conviction in the Labor camp that this was “straight from the Crosby Textor playbook”. Labor has grudging respect for the Liberals’ pollster, but the prime minister’s people flatly denied that Dutton’s remarks were orchestrated.

Turnbull hit back, accusing Labor of “gesture politics” on refugees. “Peter Dutton is an outstanding immigration minister,” he said. “For more than 600 days there has not been one successful people-smuggler operation bringing unauthorised arrivals to Australia.” He went on to praise our successful multicultural society. He even talked about compassion – something the United Nations does not ascribe to our Pacific Solution. What the “Q&A voters” make of the Malcolm Turnbull they are now getting is the big question. They were the people who liked the more moderate Turnbull as he appeared on ABC TV before getting the top job, the man who used the word “harsh” in relation to offshore processing.

Shorten had some ups this week, winning Sky’s People’s Forum over Turnbull, but one of the takeouts for Labor was that while Shorten’s message was well tailored to voters’ concerns, it was not enough to dislodge the prime minister. The theory of some commentators was Shorten has to do more to show that the status quo is a bigger risk for voters than switching to Labor. He has already begun hammering divisions in the government as a key ingredient to what the government has to offer.

In that, Labor is being helped by the deposed prime minister, Tony Abbott, and his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Abbott is not about to disappear from view. On Sunday he had all the TV networks cover the launch of his local campaign. The same thing a bitter Kevin Rudd did in 2010. While some hope Abbott is merely being helpful, and his chief of staff simply another commentator, nothing could be further from the truth on either count. 

Not only is Abbott serving notice that he doesn’t see his career being over, he is positioning for a comeback. His denials are about as convincing as Rudd’s. Credlin has no compunction criticising Turnbull’s campaign or feeding into perceptions he is out of touch. She even offered his detractors a new nickname to employ, which already seems like sticking: “Mr Harbourside Mansion.” She is as helpful to Turnbull as former Labor leader Mark Latham was to Julia Gillard when he worked on Nine’s 60 Minutes. You can’t be such a significant player so recently and pretend you are not a participant.

One New South Wales powerbroker says the right has Turnbull in a straitjacket. “There are just so many of them in Canberra, unlike in Macquarie Street.” This goes a long way to explain why Turnbull has slowly been sliding in the personal polls. In the Essential poll he has a net negative approval rating for the first time since becoming leader. Approval of his performance has fallen to 40 per cent, while disapproval has risen to 42 per cent. Eroding credibility makes it that much harder to be positive.

Labor is bracing itself for a negative onslaught, especially if this week’s refugee assault and national security focus doesn’t start shifting voter sentiment. Winning the election on an Abbott strategy was never in the original Turnbull plan. But it’s what he is trying to do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Turnbull pushes the panic Dutton".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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