Prime Minister Tony Abbott has consistently said that the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat (or “illegal maritime arrivals”, in the government’s parlance) reached a rate  of almost 50,000 a year by midway through last year. But did it?

Certainly, if true, these are arresting figures. In fact, the government reported only 17,202 asylum seekers in 2012 and a further 13,108 to the end of June 2013, totalling 30,310 arrivals over a year and a half — a long way from 50,000 arrivals per year. So where did the 50,000 figure come from? If you look at the Liberal Party’s own press release from the August 7, 2013, it appears to refer to the total number of people who had arrived by boat since Kevin Rudd won office in 2007.

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To be fair, one could suggest that this is possibly just a slip of the tongue. This can happen in the course of public speaking, as you have to always be on your toes, and as a result one can make the occasional blunder. Abbott has definitely made a few. Unfortunately, in this instance the Abbott government has made the same this claim over and over and there has been little interrogation of the figure. For example, the claim was repeated by Abbott this year on January 9, and most recently on Today on July 9. At no time was the figure questioned. It was simply reported, giving it the weight of being an accepted fact.

In July last year there was a spike of 4236 arrivals. However, the following month only 1585 arrived — the lowest count for five months at that time. Further, just 3753 asylum seekers arriving by boat between July 19 and September 17, 2013. In other words, the statistic that Abbott keeps referring to simply does not add up.

What becomes clear is that there is a dual message being run by the Liberal Party. There is the understated, more sober analysis that is provided to the party faithful in press releases on the website, while a far more fantastical message is peddled to the public in a bid to get people to hit the panic button and garner support for a heartless policy that will return desperate people to the country they are fleeing with the prospect of further persecution. Such is the potential fate that awaits 153 Sri Lankans currently being held on an Australian Customs vessel outside of our territorial waters, who are now the subject of a High Court challenge.

Adding further detail, and perhaps insult, to the current debate around asylum seekers is the fact that Abbott, in response to a case of a group of mothers on Christmas Island attempting to self-harm after hearing their children would have more chance of making it to Australia without them, has sought to take the moral high ground. Abbott stated that while the situation is “harrowing”, he would not capitulate to what he described as “moral blackmail”.

This, it seems, is a bit rich coming from a man who has no compunction about routinely fudging the statistics for political capital, particularly when there are people’s lives at stake. As such I have to agree with Sarah Hanson-Young’s recent assessment of Abbott as the one who is “morally bankrupt”. Though more importantly, more than just fellow politicians need to call him out. Surely it’s time the PM was held to account for this kind of behaviour.

*David Tittensor is a research fellow to the UNESCO Chair with Deakin’s Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation

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Peter Fray
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