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Why “Stop The Boats” May Not Work For Rishi Sunak Like It Did For Australia’s Right

Rishi Sunak has pledged to stop the boats (Alamy)

6 min read

It wasn’t exactly subtle. But that was the point. “STOP THE BOATS” screamed Rishi Sunak’s latest lectern slogan in red and white capital letters when he defended his Rwanda deportation legislation late last year.

The three-word slogan is familiar to many. 

In 2013, the then Liberal Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott coined the phrase for his election-winning campaign. A decade later, the ‘Australian method’ is now promoted to Europe as a copy-and-paste solution for its migrant crisis. 

Rishi Sunak has eagerly adopted the line, first crafted by Mark Textor of Crosby Textor – the same firm that trained the Conservative’s current campaign director, Isaac Levido. Stopping the Boats remained at top of Sunak’s agenda at his new year speech in Lancashire on Monday.

The appeal of mimicking the wedge politics that broke Australia’s Labor party on the same issue is obvious. But running on an absolutist migration pledge when you lack the absolutist solutions that were available to Australia invites immense danger for the Tories.

The Australian Solution 

Australia’s Pacific Solution dates back to the country’s 2001 election and the Tampa Affair, named after the Norwegian merchant vessel which rescued around 430 asylum seekers from their sinking vessel. 

Adamant that these methods not be rewarded and others encouraged, the Liberal government, led by John Howard, struck deals to send asylum seekers intercepted at sea to the Pacific Islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. 

The policy was ferociously condemned by some in the international community, human rights lawyers and the Australia Labor party. 

Combined with 9/11, which happened a few weeks after Tampa, national security emerged as a central theme of the election that the Liberals had been poised to lose. 

But when in the final weeks of the campaign, Howard declared: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” it was game over.

The line was totemic and a turning point in Australia’s history, and some argue, character. But the policy worked and the boats all but stopped.

When Labor came to power in 2007, they dismantled the policy and the boats returned but at a far higher and faster rate than previously experienced. 

Even though Labor eventually reinstated the offshore processing policy they despised as immoral and inhumane, it was no longer the deterrent it had proved in the past and by the time the Liberals returned to power, an even more drastic measure was required.

“We would put [the would-be migrants] in a big orange unsinkable life raft with just enough fuel to get the 12 miles from the international boundary to the beaches of Java, [Indonesia],” Tony Abbott, who served as Prime Minister between 2013 and 2015, told Tory backbencher and GB News host Jacob Rees-Mogg late last year.

“I can remember seeing on the front page of our newspaper in early 2014, a big orange life-raft washed up on a beach of Java.

“And I thought we’ve won this because the message will go out loud and clear and their people smugglers to their clients ‘The Way is Closed.’”

But because there are no international waters between France and the UK, the only way the UK could turn a boat back to Calais is with the permission of the French, meaning this option, the only one that ended up stopping the boats to Australia, is closed to Sunak. 

“That [turnback] model cannot work in the Mediterranean, nor can it work in the English Channel,”  Gillian Triggs, a long-standing critic of the Pacific Solution during her time as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, said. 

Wrapping up her term in Geneva as the UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, she is adamant that no-one in Europe takes the Australian methods as serious options.

“Some boats will continue to come in any event because you can’t establish a steel ship-based cordon sanitaire around the United Kingdom,” she continued.

“It just can’t work, even if it can work for parts of north-western Australia, it can’t work anywhere else.”

Central to the Australian deterrent is the concept of denying anyone who travels by boat the chance of ever resettling there.

This is why the Tories have reached for the Rwanda solution, where asylum seekers will have their claims processed in the African nation and then resettled in third countries but never the UK, even if they are recognised to be refugees. 

Slowing the boats or stopping the boats?

Figures inside the UK government believe that the first flight to Rwanda will send a strong deterrent signal, which is why Sunak is pursuing legislation needed to send the flights, despite the internal political costs. 

Whether or not Rwanda works is still to be tested. But one benchmark that will be easier to assess at the time of the next election is whether the Conservatives have actually stopped the boats as promised.

Sunak and Home Secretary James Cleverly have stressed the progress that greater cooperation with Europe and other partners has made in reducing the flow by around 30 per cent, and are hopeful that these gains will grow as the election date nears.

But slowing the boats is not the same as stopping them. Simplistic slogans cut through, but their downside is that they leave you little wriggle room.

One Tory campaign insider insists voters understand the issue is prevalent in Europe, and that the Stop the Boats slogan is a longer-term demonstration of intent. 

Then there is the risk that any deemed failure of the pledge that Sunak himself has placed front and centre, could end up hurting the Conservatives more than it affects Labour. 

“Immigration is a priority mainly for Conservative leaning voters, not Labour leaning ones,” Philip van Scheltinga from Redfield & Wilton Research said. 

“Among those voters who have defected from the Conservatives to Labour, it is the NHS and the cost of living that have driven them to the Opposition.

“But among those Conservative voters who are now less likely to vote at all or who are defecting to Reform, immigration is definitely a big factor.”

Tony Barry, director at the Melbourne-based research firm RedBridge Research, who was an adviser to the then Liberal Leader Malcolm Turnbull when Labor unwound the Pacific Solution, warned the Conservatives against thinking migration could serve as a silver-bullet vote-winning issue, and said that if mis-managed, it risked turning off more moderate-leaning Conservatives.

“A policy of stopping the boats does go to national sovereignty which remains a core value for most voters,” he said. 

“But former Australian prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, both won elections on more than just national sovereignty and played to the Liberal Party’s core of responsible economic management.

“If the UK Government can’t stop the boats, the macro message it sends to voters is that it probably doesn’t have the wherewithal to competently deliver good governance on other salient issues and functions of government.”

Further eroding whatever is left of the Conservatives governing credentials, could be a knock-out blow.

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