The head of Australia’s military-led border security operations has warned against any attempts to water the hardline policy down, following the interception of a people-smuggling boat off the coast of Malaysia.
Air Vice-Marshall Stephen Osborne, the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders, appeared alongside Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on Monday to discuss the thwarted venture.
The modified tanker was carrying 131 Sri Lankans when it was halted off the coast of southern Johor state on Tuesday last week.
The boatload of 98 men, 24 women, four boys and five girls was believed to be bound for Australia or New Zealand.
Mr Dutton said the type of boat, its size and the people involved all pointed to a sophisticated operation, which had the potential to reach New Zealand.
Those responsible are well known, he told reporters in Canberra on Monday, while thanking Malaysian authorities.
Mr Dutton used the intercepted vessel to attack Labor’s approach to border protection.
He pushed Labor to oppose a proposal for a 90-day limit on holding asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, claiming Bill Shorten was “talking out both sides of his mouth” on offshore detention.
Air Vice-Marshall Osborne appeared to take an unusual step into the political realm when asked whether he shared the minister’s concerns that “the boats will restart” under Labor.
“The most appropriate (thing) for me to say is Operation Sovereign Borders has been very successful now – it is almost four years without venture,” he told reporters.
“It’s built on a very particular structure and if we make any changes to that structure, I would have some concerns, and we will leave it at that.”
Mr Dutton warned New Zealand was now being marketed as a “definite destination” by people smugglers.
He said New Zealand was the only country in the world where you can have a visa into Australia on arrival.
“The people smugglers understand that and I don’t understand why Labor can’t get it,” Mr Dutton told reporters.
The minister said parties need to be careful about putting New Zealand in the policy mix because it becomes the “sugar” on the table.
He stopped short of claiming New Zealand ought to accept any blame for the intercepted vessel due to its own border policies, but said the Ardern government now understood “the gravity of this situation”.
“What I would say is that anybody, when they’re talking about these matters, needs to be careful and circumspect about what it is that they’re saying,” Mr Dutton said.
“Because it will be interpreted a particular way by people smugglers”
Labor immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann claimed Mr Dutton was playing into the hands of people smugglers and criminals by his comments on the opposition’s border protection policies.
“Labor believes in strong borders, offshore processing, regional resettlement and turn-backs when safe to do so because we know it saves lives at seas,” Mr Neumann said.
“Shame on Peter Dutton and the Liberals for undermining Labor’s strong position on border protection and encouraging the people smugglers to restart their vile trade.”
Mr Neumann said the government should be able to negotiate a resettlement deal with New Zealand akin to one struck with the United States. (SBS News)