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Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Coalition’s attempts to derail Labor over immigration have just made Dutton the target | Karen Middleton

PoliticsThe Coalition’s attempts to derail Labor over immigration have just made Dutton the target | Karen Middleton

It’s been another shocker week for the government on immigration. But everyone speculating about heads rolling can cool their jets.

Anthony Albanese will likely reshuffle his ministry before the election, but not now. For starters, sacking a minister during a parliamentary fortnight would be nuts. Barring some astronomical scandal, it isn’t going to happen.

All the talk of shifting the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, assumes Albanese believes change is the solution. Evidence right now suggests he doesn’t.

Immigration is a wickedly complex and tough portfolio so the first test is: would anyone else handle it better than the beleaguered incumbent?

Giles’ gentle presentation makes him seem hesitant in the face of the Coalition onslaught and that leans some of his colleagues towards maybe. Others argue the problem is not the minister’s competence or communication but the circumstances – the high court’s November ruling that indefinite detention was unlawful and the home affairs department’s failure to properly notify him that some of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions allowing violent criminals to stay in Australia might need attention.

It’s generally considered bad form for ministers to blame their departments. But in this case, the department has admitted it failed to notify Giles of cases that could warrant him using his discretion.

It’s worth a quick recap of how we got to this point. It’s all about New Zealand and goes back to when Scott Morrison was prime minister on this side of the Tasman and Jacinda Ardern on the other.

Under Australia’s migration system, once a foreign citizen is convicted of an offence punishable by 12 months’ jail or more, they qualify for visa cancellation. A delegate of the minister – a departmental officer – examines the wider circumstances, using a ministerial direction as a guide. Under Morrison, that was direction 90 and it set out a list of primary and other considerations.

The four primary considerations were: the protection of the community; whether the conduct constituted family violence; the best interests of minor children in Australia; and community expectations. If the visa was cancelled, the person could appeal to the AAT which reviewed it against the same ministerial direction.

Morrison took a hard line, including against Kiwi citizens who had been convicted of crimes in Australia. Regardless of whether they had served their time, lived almost all their lives in Australia with no ties in NZ, committed only minor offences or all of the above, Morrison deported them.

Ardern was enraged at what she said was Australia exporting its crime problem.

She told Morrison that NZ didn’t have a bikie-gang issue until Australia gave it one. She said dispatching criminals to a country where they had no ties meant the likelihood they would return to crime was high. And so, often, it came to pass.

Morrison was unwavering but Albanese promised to fix it. He instructed his minister, Giles, to rewrite the 24-page ministerial direction and add another primary consideration: “The strength, nature and duration of ties to Australia.”

That became ministerial direction 99. The department warned the government there were likely to be consequences – more convicted criminals would end up staying. The volume of appeals to the AAT increased.

The minister still has discretion to overrule an AAT decision he thinks is especially bad but the department didn’t keep him updated on the cases. Now the government is facing political heat over criminals with torrid records being allowed to live in the community – people who have, incidentally, all completed their sentences and, if they were Australian, would be living there anyway.

The Coalition wants Giles sacked. The prime minister won’t do it.

If he refreshes his ministry, it will be part of a broader reshuffle, probably attributed to up to a handful of ministers deciding to retire from politics, and it won’t be executed until there’s a solid parliamentary break – so, either in July, or just before Christmas.

Albanese’s known to believe ministers shouldn’t get sacked just because things are politically difficult – a maxim to which not all of his colleagues adhere. He sets the bar at egregious breaches of government policy, corruption, that sort of thing.

Some may see that as cover for wanting to protect a factional mate. As a leader of the Victorian left, Giles is certainly that and the prime minister puts a premium on loyalty. But that doesn’t seem to be the driving consideration here.

Albanese also places a premium on portfolio continuity. He spent many years in infrastructure and a few in governments scarred by crisis-driven churn. He doesn’t want a repeat. He’s been reminding anyone who’ll listen that his government has gone two years without change. So stability is high on his list.

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Stability is the opposite of what Peter Dutton wants voters to associate with the government.

Dutton and his Coalition colleagues have been highly successful at wrongfooting Labor on immigration. The political focus on the AAT reversing visa-cancellations for violent criminals has done the government damage.

In parliament, it completely overshadowed Labor’s attempts to use a sitting week to talk up how its recent budget is easing the cost of living.

And outside, the government fell foul of what one observer dubbed the “Natalie Barr test”.

On Wednesday morning, as the home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, was trying to defend Giles on Seven’s Sunrise program, co-host Barr reeled off a devastating list of appalling crimes committed by foreign citizens whose visa cancellations the AAT had reversed and who were living in the community because the minister hadn’t stepped in.

When high-rating breakfast television programs are savaging you in prime time, it’s not a great week.

The government couldn’t pretend it wasn’t a problem. Albanese stood up the same afternoon at the start of question time and announced direction 99 was being revised.

What followed was question after opposition question citing examples of terrible crimes committed by people who had been allowed to stay since direction 99 was issued.

But there was also a marked shift in how the government returned fire.

Albanese and Giles began reciting examples of crimes committed by people whose visa cancellations were reversed when Dutton was home affairs minister – not by the AAT but by the minister’s own delegates in the department. These decisions were made under earlier versions of the ministerial direction, before the extra consideration about community ties was added. There are plenty of examples – almost 1,300. They started rolling them out one by one.

Albanese announces reversal of ministerial ruling that saw criminals given visas – video

In between, there were government backbench Dorothy Dixers designed to highlight the treatment of veterans when Dutton was defence minister, specifically the enormous backlog of unpaid-entitlements cases that caused bitterness and hardship in the veteran community.

This new focus on Dutton was because the opposition leader’s immigration attack on Labor has several tracks. Most obviously, Dutton wants to link the visa issue to law and order and to argue that Labor can’t keep people safe.

He is also linking concerns about migrant numbers to the cost of living, especially via housing, because that’s what people in the wider community are actually focused on right now.

And his attack on Giles is really an attack on Albanese. Political research shows voters are still struggling to define the prime minister, so Dutton is doing it for them, labelling him as “weak” at every opportunity.

This week, the government started hitting back.

For most of a parliamentary term, prime ministers generally avoid attacking their opponents directly because it elevates them to equal status, which can be risky. But when the next election looms, that changes.

Albanese flagged the shift in his address to the Labor caucus this week, when he spoke about cabinet’s focus being on “crafting the offer” for a second term. That’s campaign jargon for encouraging voters to start weighing up the choice.

Cabinet’s key strategists believe that while Dutton is succeeding politically as a critic of Albanese, when he’s portrayed as an alternative prime minister he fails. The gap in poll ratings between the two is bolstering that view.

In the end, this is where the real contest will be. It’s going to get a lot more robust. And Andrew Giles is just collateral damage.

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