19 Feb 2024

Anthony Albanese says asylum seeker boat arrival 'unfortunate' but government not to blame

8:45 pm on 19 February 2024

By Jake Evans, ABC political reporter

Australian and New New Zealand Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese and Christopher Luxon meet in Sydney

Anthony Albanese says the government's border policy is working as intended. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says the arrival of a boat carrying several asylum seekers to Western Australia's far north coast is "unfortunate" but not a failure of Operation Sovereign Borders.

The federal opposition has gone on the offensive over the arrival of 39 men who say they travelled by boat from Indonesia to remote communities in WA's north-west on Friday.

It accuses the government of short-changing the department and allowing surveillance operations to fail.

Speaking on Perth radio this morning, Albanese rubbished those suggestions, saying the government had not cut funding to the Australian Border Force (ABF) and had maintained offshore processing programs.

"It is working. That's why they're in Nauru. That's the whole point, the whole point," Albanese told the Australian Radio Network.

"There's been people wandering around Queensland beaches on the former government's watch. What's important is that the system is in place so that people who arrive as unauthorised arrivals by boat won't be allowed to settle here.

"That's my government's policy."

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said earlier surveillance was not operating as well as when the Coalition was in government.

"It's clear that they don't have the same surveillance in place that we had when we were in government," Dutton said.

"It is inconceivable that a boat of this size carrying 40-plus people could make it to the mainland without there being any detection."

Dutton said it was a "catastrophic" failure of border policy that the prime minister first learned of the boat's arrival through the media.

ABF's most recent annual report documented a 6 percent decrease in "maritime patrol days" and a 14 percent decrease in flying hours, compared to the year previous.

Senators were told difficulties in recruiting pilots, the age of the ABF's maritime fleet and blowouts in maintenance time frames were the primary drivers behind the reduced surveillance hours.

However, the agency also told the Senate Estimates Committee it was mitigating those issues and had sufficient surveillance coverage.

Dutton points to budget forecasts, temporary protection visa changes

The Coalition has accused the government of cutting funding to the Home Affairs department, which the ABF sits under, pointing to smaller spending forecasts in government budget documents.

Dutton's claim relates to forecast reductions in appropriations to Home Affairs amounting to A$600 million (NZ$639m) less over four years compared to its most recent annual spend.

But when challenged on this point last year, former department boss Mike Pezzullo said actual spending had always been higher than forecasts, and said not only was there no reason to expect this would change, but that it would be inappropriate to describe it as a "planned reduction" in spending.

Dutton also pointed to the government's abolition of temporary protection visas (TPVs) as a signal that the government was "weak" on immigration.

The visas were only available to a small cohort of asylum seekers who arrived by boat between August 2012 and the end of 2013, and who were also deemed genuine refugees - a "legacy caseload" of about 31,000 people.

Refugees on TPVs were moved onto permanent visas last year when the program was abolished, and Dutton said unless the visa class was reinstated the government could not claim Operations Sovereign Borders was operating as it did under the Coalition.

Albanese repeated warnings by the head of Operation Sovereign Borders that misleading commentary could serve to encourage people smuggling outfits.

"Are these people on temporary protection visas? No, they are on Nauru," he said.

"People who arrive by boat get sent offshore, that is the measure we have in place.

"We have clear positions in place … Peter Dutton will continue to be a cheer squad for things which undermine our borders."

In a statement, Greens senator Nick McKim said the "political panic" over the arrival of asylum seekers by boat was harmful to community harmony.

"There is indeed a crisis in immigration - and that is the fact that people exiled to offshore detention 11 years ago have been cut adrift by the major political parties in this country with nary a word from the media," McKim said.

"This is the real crisis. Not the arrival of a tiny number of desperate people seeking our help."

- This story was first published by the ABC.

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