Proving that whatever Peter Dutton can do, he can do worse, Barnaby Joyce last night made the most extraordinary claim yet advanced about asylum seekers, that the rise in boat arrivals was linked to Labor’s decision to halt the live export trade to Indonesia in the face of horrific, indeed sadistic, levels of abuse of animals.

Even Joyce himself was this morning insisting he had made no such link, suggesting he realised he had gone too far. His colleagues, meanwhile, deployed the same strategy they had with Peter Dutton’s vilification of refugees — insisting their colleague had said something quite different to what he had actually said.

Whether it was accidental or not, however, Joyce’s astonishing remarks illustrate how the Coalition now reflexively reaches for the boats issue no matter how vague or tenuous a connection there is to the subject at hand — just as Tony Abbott once replied to a question on the economy by claiming he’d “stopped the boats”.

The Coalition used to claim “surpluses are in our DNA”. That claim hasn’t been made for a long time, as they’ve racked up deficit after deficit with their increased spending. But it’s clear that boats are in their DNA. No matter why, no matter how absurdly, they’ll seek to drag asylum seekers into the discussion.

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And to think Malcolm Turnbull promised a more mature and intelligent national debate.

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