Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull

A funny thing has happened over the course of the last three years as the Coalition has succeeded in “stopping the boats”: the electorate has become less and less likely to trust it on the issue.

In 2013, the Coalition was preferred by 39% of voters to handle the issue, compared to just 17% for Labor — a lead of 22 points, suggesting even many Labor voters trusted the Coalition more than the party they supported on asylum seekers. It was the Coalition’s biggest lead across all policy issues — even bigger than its lead on economic management and national security. That lead dipped as low as 11 after Kevin Rudd II declared that no one arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia, but by the end of 2013, as Operation Sovereign Borders was rolled out, the Coalition still had a healthy 18-point lead.

But as the boats stopped, and Labor adopted a strategy of being as invisible as possible, that lead began shrinking: down to 12 points on the eve of Tony Abbott being rolled, seven points a couple of months later, eight points in May, four points during the election campaign. Most recently, it was six points, in August. That’s primarily come from the level of trust in the Coalition falling, not the level of trust in Labor rising — there’s been a big increase in people who say they “don’t know” who they think is better at handling the issue, from around 31% in 2013 to 41% in August.

[Kenny v Bacon, in the flesh]

Rarely has policy success on a high-profile issue — and the Coalition has achieved near total success in stopping maritime arrivals, certainly far beyond the level anticipated by its critics — been met with such indifference and even antipathy from voters. And not all of it can be explained by the switch to Malcolm Turnbull from Tony Abbott in September last year. It’s unlikely, but it’s just possible that the sheer level of malice and incompetence from the Department of Immigration has reached beyond the Canberra bubble to influence voter perceptions of competence. While stuff-ups like Immigration getting a key part of its annual report wrong and screwing up billion-dollar tendering processes not once or twice but three times under successive government and four ministers are decidedly insider stuff, Immigration’s deliberate policy of punitive neglect in offshore processing has had a far wider audience, with constant evidence of sexual assaults, child abuse, medical neglect and murder of detainees — and Immigration’s attempt to shut down information about them and blame the media and “activists” — receiving extensive coverage.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, Turnbull repeatedly tried to use the issue during the election campaign: the Coalition sought to focus on Labor candidates who had contradicted Labor’s policy at some point in the past; Immigration Minister Peter Dutton vilified refugees as “illiterates” who would “take Australian jobs”; News Corp loyally ran attacks on Labor on the issue. Curiously, however, in June, after Turnbull’s repeated efforts to exploit the issue, the Coalition’s lead slumped to four points, in a prelude to big loss of seats on election day that left the Coalition uncertain about forming government.

[Do refugees take our jerbs? No, they create new ones.]

Now the government — trailing in the polls, beset by open fighting between Turnbull and his predecessor and with Turnbull’s approval ratings in the red — has again returned to the issue with its proposed lifetime visa ban, producing the kind of policy that seems to have come straight from a staffer brainstorming session on “what other ways can we punish refugees”. And Labor appears increasingly confident about differentiating itself on the issue: having spent three years refusing to allow the slightest difference between it and the government, with alleged immigration spokesman Richard Marles left with so little to do he began hosting a TV program, Labor is now edging away. Bill Shorten has declared the government’s proposal “ludicrous”, although characteristically he has reserved the right to back it.

Moreover, Shorten has used it to strengthen one of Labor’s key narratives — portraying Turnbull as hopelessly captive to the far right: on climate change, on marriage equality, on asylum seekers. Pauline Hanson has — doubtless to Labor’s delight — helped them out by lauding the government for mimicking her party. In returning to the issue, Turnbull might have hoped he could frame Labor as divided and weak on border security, but instead found himself being framed.

For a party that once owned the asylum seeker issue completely, it’s a remarkable turnaround. Perhaps Turnbull and Dutton will finally get the issue right and use it to restore the government’s standing in the polls. Alternatively, they can keep resorting to an approach that hasn’t worked for some time and isn’t about to change.

Peter Fray

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