Home » What is Operation Sovereign Borders, and why are Australia's politicians fighting about it?

What is Operation Sovereign Borders, and why are Australia's politicians fighting about it?

Key Points
  • Border control has become a hot button political issue after at least 39 men arrived in Australia by boat last week.
  • The Opposition accused the government of underfunding Operation Sovereign Borders and failing to "stop the boats".
  • Operation Sovereign Borders retains the support of the Albanese government, despite associations with the Coalition.
The recent arrival of a boat carrying at least 39 asylum seekers to Australia has once again over Australia's methods of border control.
Much of that debate has centred on the question of whether Operation Sovereign Borders, the policy initiative that pledges to "stop the boats", is as effective under the current Labor government as it was under the Coalition.
The Opposition and Peter Dutton claim Operation Sovereign Borders is being insufficiently resourced under Anthony Albanese's leadership, while Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil argues the operation is "better funded than it's ever been".
Such arguments reignite what's been a hot button political issue for over two decades.
Yet despite their apparent disagreements, the two major parties aren't as divided on the matter of border security, and how best to achieve it, as political rhetoric might make it seem.

What is Operation Sovereign Borders?

Established in 2013, Operation Sovereign Borders is a military-led border security operation that takes a hard-line, zero-tolerance stance towards unapproved sea arrivals.
Those suspected of attempting such arrivals into Australia are typically either intercepted and turned back or placed in offshore detention facilities in places such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Implemented shortly after the election of Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National government, the policy initiative is largely associated with the Coalition government.
Mary Crock, a professor of public law at the University of Sydney’s Law School and an accredited specialist in immigration law, described the policy's genesis as "a political response to trying to make our borders stronger, in the context of an election campaign fought on the basis that 'we will stop the boats'".
"It has to be seen in the context of a wider trend to securitise the whole migration process," Crock told SBS News.
"There were a raft of changes made at the same time, which over time have seen many, many more people being targeted for removal from the country, as well as a very effective campaign to exclude people."

Do the major parties differ on border security?

since coming to power in 2022. And while each major party seems eager to criticise the other’s allegedly lax, dubious or problematic approach to border security, they share essentially the same position.
Don Rothwell is a professor of international law at the Australian National University’s College of Law.
"As things currently stand, there is effectively no change or no difference between the two major parties," he told SBS News. "The Albanese government effectively adopted and endorsed Operation Sovereign Borders."
More than that, the current Labor government has invested $470 million towards strengthening the operation. Minister O'Neil told ABC on Tuesday that "this particular operation is better funded today than it has ever been in the past."
"We have invested an additional almost half a billion dollars in this operation compared to what the previous government was looking to spend," she said. "This operation is better resourced and better backed by our government than it has ever been before."
Experts warn that political rhetoric around weak borders could incentivise people smugglers.  
In a statement provided to SBS News, Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram confirmed that funding for the agency is the highest it has been since its establishment in 2015.

Why are Australia's borders so politically contentious?

There are several possible reasons why politicians have leapt on this latest arrival and the border control failure that it allegedly represents.
Rothwell explained that the success of Operation Sovereign Borders is considered by many Liberal-National politicians as the legacy of recent Coalition governments.
"Any sign that those legacies are being dismantled, any weakening of the way in which Australia conducts Operation Sovereign Borders by a Labor government, is perhaps inevitably seized upon for political purposes," he said.
There are also historical reasons for Dutton to think such tactics might work. As Crock pointed out, the issue of who to trust with policing Australia’s borders all but won the Coalition the federal election in 2013.
"The interesting thing for me is whether you can do that twice," Crock said.
"I suspect you can't."

How can political statements embolden people smugglers?

Regardless of whether his approach garners support, Dutton's criticisms of the government over perceived failures to stop boat arrivals could have serious repercussions, experts say.
Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, commander of the operation's Joint Agency Task Force, warned that allegations of weak border security could incentivise people smugglers to leverage the perceived loopholes and send more vessels to Australia.
Crock has seen firsthand how this knock-on effect plays out on the ground.
"I've been in Indonesia, I've been in the homes of people smugglers there, I've been taken around and I know how they operate," she said.
"Everybody's on a mobile phone, everyone's got immediate communications, and the smugglers use the language that is coming out of the [Australian] politicians 100 per cent to sell their dangerous voyages."
Crock said she’s also spoken to asylum seekers who were issued with tickets that made it look as though they were boarding a proper ocean liner, only to be forced onto dinghies by the people smugglers and taken out to sea.
"[People smugglers] are not nice people," she said. "They're murderous, evil, horrible people, and they're absolutely using the politics. [Dutton] knows it so well and doesn't care."
Crock said she doesn’t see last week’s arrival of the men in Western Australia as indicative of a "long-term, big problem".
As she pointed out, Australia’s border authorities, with the cooperation of counterparts overseas in countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka, have maintained a successful strategy of stopping, intercepting and turning back boat arrivals.
In rare cases where vessels do slip through the cracks and reach Australian shores without authorities knowing about it, she said, "there’s always a reason".
This latest incident happened to coincide with a major event in Indonesia: namely,
"At a particular time when John Howard had his massive surge in boats, in 1999 through 2001, it coincided with East Timorese independence and relationships with Indonesia were never poorer," Crock said.
"I think this event probably relates to the disruption of the election in Indonesia."
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