Now that the dust has settled on the end of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, it is time to put to bed the myth that Abbott stopped the boats. That is a great piece of spin, but Tony Abbott did not stop the boats. The game changer was the announcement by Kevin Rudd on July 19, 2013, two months before the election, that any persons arriving irregularly by boat would not be settled in Australia. Boat arrivals fell quickly and dramatically as a result of this announcement, coming on top of other measures the Labor government had already taken.

In fact, Tony Abbott kept the door open for tens of thousands of boat arrivals in the first place. His failure to support the Malaysia Arrangement in September 2011 resulted in the surge of boat arrivals over the next two years.

In May 2011 the Australian and Malaysian governments announced an “in principle” arrangement that up to 800 boat arrivals would be transferred from Australia to Malaysia for their asylum claims to be heard and, in response, Australia would be prepared to accept 4000 refugees from Malaysia. The arrangement with Malaysia was signed on July 25, 2011. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gave it qualified support.

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At that stage, people arriving irregularly by boat were running at about 200-300 per month.

On August 31, 2011, the High Court found against the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship’s powers to transfer people to Malaysia under the arrangement. In response, on September 21, 2011, the Gillard government introduced legislation — the Migration Amendment (Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011 — which was designed to modify those parts of the Migration Act that had caused the problem in the High Court. There was strong opposition to the bill in the House of Representatives by the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, who were bitterly critical of Malaysia. As the bill was doomed, the government decided not to proceed with the legislation. (It was subsequently passed in August 2012 after the Houston Report).

There were some lags in the response of asylum seekers and people-smugglers to gear up to the opportunities the Coalition and others had left open for them. The timing of boat arrivals was also affected by bad weather and heavy seas, typically in the period December-March. Surges of people of different ethnic background can also change the dynamics of people flow. But it is clear that after the legislation stalled, there was a substantial increase in boat arrivals, particularly from Sri Lanka and Iran. People-smugglers saw the High Court decision and the failure of the Australian Parliament to amend the Migration Act as a clear signal that their business could proceed.

From November 2011, monthly asylum seeker arrivals began to trend up again. In the month of May 2012 they reached 1286 and, allowing for seasonal variations, kept rising inexorably to a monthly peak of 4230 in July 2013. See the chart below:

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.

The Coalition under Tony Abbott was not interested in stopping the boats at that time. Its primary interest was to stop Labor stopping the boats. WikiLeaks revealed that a key Liberal Party strategist in 2009 told the US embassy that “the more boats that come the better”.

Moreover, the data just does not support the claim that, after coming to power in September 2013, Tony Abbott “stopped the boats”. The 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% 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 December 19, 2013.

It was, in fact, Labor that stopped the boats. Several 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 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 September 18, 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 seven in December.

Operation Sovereign Borders was applied to the “tail end” of a phenomenon that had largely been stopped. Arguably, boat turn-backs would not have been “successful” at all without the July 2013 decision. For example, the Royal Australian 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.

*This is an edited and condensed version of an article originally published on John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations

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