Labor leader Anthony Albanese at the debate (file image)
Anthony Albanese has questioned Scott Morrison's stance on boat turnbacks before the 2013 election. Image by Jason Edwards/AAP IMAGES

Labor leader rewrites history on coalition boat turnback policy

William Summers May 3, 2022

Scott Morrison did not propose that asylum seeker boats should be turned back during the lead-up to the 2013 election.


False. The coalition had a clear policy in support of boat turnbacks before the 2013 poll.

A heated exchange on Australia’s immigration policy during the first leaders’ debate led to a claim from Labor’s Anthony Albanese that his opponent Scott Morrison had not proposed boat turnbacks before the coalition won power in 2013.

The claim is false. A coalition document dated July 2013 – two months before the September 2013 federal election – clearly states boat turnbacks were a coalition policy. There are also multiple examples of Labor politicians criticising the coalition plan in the lead-up to the 2013 election.

Mr Albanese made the comment during a discussion on border controls in which the two leaders reiterated their support for measures in place to deter asylum seekers from arriving in Australia by boat.

Both said they supported boat turnbacks, but when asked by the prime minister why Mr Albanese had not backed the policy when he was deputy prime minister before the 2013 election, the Labor leader replied: “You weren’t proposing that then.” (video mark 24min 34sec)

Mr Morrison interjected: “We were. I’m sorry, it was our policy. Turnbacks were our policy before the 2013 election. I was the shadow immigration minister. I designed the policy.”

The Labor Party did not respond to a request from AAP FactCheck for the basis of Mr Albanese’s claim.

Boat turnbacks form part of Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led border security regime Tony Abbott‘s coalition government established shortly after it won power in September 2013.

According to the operation website, “anyone who attempts an unauthorised boat voyage to Australia will be turned back to their point of departure, returned to their home country or transferred to another country”.

The operation was introduced immediately after Mr Abbott’s government was sworn in on September 18, 2013. It was overseen by Mr Morrison as immigration minister.

The policy followed the arrival of more than 800 unauthorised boats carrying in excess of 50,000 passengers from 2009 to 2013, according to figures from the parliamentary library.

John Howard‘s coalition government used a similar boat turnback policy between 2001 and 2006, with the Australian Navy directed to escort or tow “suspected illegal entry vessels” to the edge of Indonesian territorial waters (page 2).

During the 2007-2013 Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the navy and customs officials continued the practice of intercepting unauthorised vessels bound for Australia and warning them to return to Indonesia but they were not turned back.

Contrary to Mr Albanese’s claim, senior coalition figures including Mr Morrison made it clear the turnback policy would be reinstated if they won the 2013 election.

In a July 2013 document titled The Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders Policy, the then opposition laid out detailed proposals for “a military-led response to combat people smuggling and to protect our borders” including “instructing the Australian Defence Force to turn back boats where it is safe to do so” (page 5).

The document coincides with the period from late June until September 2013 when Mr Albanese served as deputy prime minister.

The coalition’s boat turnback policy was also mentioned in parliament numerous times ahead of the 2013 election, including by Labor politicians.

For example, on June 6, 2013, Labor senator Bob Carr criticised the Liberal opposition for its “dangerous and reckless plan to turn back boats”.

On June 20, Labor immigration minister Brendan O’Connor told the house of representatives “not one agency in this country supports the proposition put by the opposition leader that you can turn back the boats”.

The policy was the subject of multiple media reports between June 27 and the September 7 election (see examples here, here, here and here).

In an interview on July 18, Mr Morrison said the coalition would focus on border measures that would have an immediate impact, and they included “turning boats back where it’s safe to do so”.

Madeline Gleeson, a lawyer and senior research fellow at UNSW’s Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, told AAP FactCheck that prior to the 2013 election there had been “a longstanding stalemate” in parliament about the best way to respond to asylum seekers arriving by boat. She agreed turnbacks were an element of coalition proposals prior to the election.

“Both sides failed to reach agreement (on how to respond to boat arrivals) and the (coalition) opposition blocked the Labor party’s efforts to pursue other avenues,” Ms Gleeson said in an email.

The Department of Home Affairs has reported that between September 18, 2013, and December 31, 2021, Australian authorities intercepted 38 suspected people-smuggling vessels and returned 873 “potential illegal immigrants” to their home countries or departure points (page 43).

Under article 14 of the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. Australia is a party to the UN’s 1951 refugee convention, which prohibits states from imposing penalties on asylum seekers who enter a country without authorisation.

The Verdict

The claim Scott Morrison did not propose boat turnbacks when Anthony Albanese was deputy prime minister in the lead-up to the 2013 election is wrong. The coalition’s turnback policy was well established prior to the poll, as evidenced by coalition policy documents, media interviews and debate in parliament.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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Updated Tuesday, May 3 2022 13:50 AEST: Corrects typo in ‘claim’ section.

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