Scott Morrison’s historic humiliation in parliament this week could end up saving his job.
You might think that sounds counterintuitive and ridiculous, and yes, it is indisputably both of those things.
How could the government possibly benefit from suffering the worst defeat on the floor of the House since the 1940s?
But hey, the world in 2019 is a crazy place.
The past 24 hours might have embarrassed the Prime Minister, but they have also have given him a chance to fight the next election on the one issue that suits him more than any other — border protection.
Compare Mr Morrison’s press conference this morning to pretty much anything else you have seen him do since becoming Prime Minister.
You could sense the change immediately. There was no hint of the trademark lame dad persona. No hint of a smirk. He was serious, focused, intense.
And he spoke as though he believed the government’s loss was his Tampa moment.
“I’m going to be engaged in very clear and direct messaging to anyone who thinks they should get on a boat. I’m here. And I will stop you,” Mr Morrison said.
“What remains is the resolve and strength and conviction of my government, myself as Prime Minister, Peter Dutton as Home Affairs Minister, and that remains a big hurdle for them to get over.
“I can tell you the bar they have to clear if Bill Shorten is prime minister is lower than a snake’s belly.”
This is a policy area Mr Morrison knows well from his time as immigration minister under Tony Abbott. He can, and will, talk about it endlessly.
Why wouldn’t he? The same strategy worked for John Howard in 2001, and Mr Abbott in 2013. Border policy is an undeniable political strength for the Coalition.
You might not like that fact. You might be infuriated by the conditions Australia inflicts on asylum seekers. But recent history suggests most of the country is on Mr Morrison’s side.
Labor is already frustrated.
It has accused Mr Morrison of running “a desperate and shrill scare campaign”. It insists there is “no difference” between the major parties’ border protection policies. It says it will continue offshore processing, boat turnbacks and regional resettlement.
In other words, one day after inflicting that humiliating defeat on the government, Labor is already on the defensive.
Parts of the government’s argument are as dubious as Labor claims.
For example, the bill parliament passed restricts its new medical transfer process to asylum seekers already on Nauru and Manus Island. It specifically excludes any new arrivals.
And yet senior members of the government, including Mr Morrison, have suggested asylum seekers will now think they can simply hop on a boat, reach Nauru, get sick and then go to Australia.
“You fail to understand that people smugglers don’t deal with the nuance of the Canberra bubble,” Mr Morrison said when he was asked about that this morning.
“It might be all fine and nice to talk about these nuances here in this courtyard but when you’re in a village in Indonesia and someone is selling you a product, there are no protections or truth in advertising laws for people smugglers. They just sell a message, and what Tony Abbott has said it exactly what the people smugglers will be saying.”
The government argues Bill Shorten “can’t be trusted” to actually limit the medical transfers to asylum seekers already in detention, and will inevitably cave to the Greens and the left of his party, should he win power.
Labor says that is complete nonsense.
The problem it faces is that little spats over details like this tend to get forgotten. What matters in the long run is that border policy is now dominating the political debate.
If you watched Question Time today — for your sake, I hope you didn’t — you would have noticed that Labor did not ask a single question about asylum seekers. Instead, it focused on the banking royal commission.
There was none of the gloating you might have expected after yesterday’s historic vote.
You know who did ask about asylum seekers? The government’s MPs. Lots of them.
Peter Dutton used the opportunity to unleash on Mr Shorten, claiming the medical transfer bill would lead to dangerous people coming to Australia.
“Have no doubt this man sitting opposite me (Mr Shorten) is not fit to be the prime minister of this country,” Mr Dutton said.
“He has shown a reckless course of action that will see people coming from Manus Island who have been accused of being in sexual relationships with 14-year-old girls.
“There is a person who stands accused of murder in Iran who, under the Labor Party’s proposal, will have a right of entry into our country.
“Far from standing strong on borders, this Leader of the Opposition has demonstrated that he is even worse, that he is even weaker than Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard combined.”
The government desperately wants to talk about this issue. It could not be more obvious. And Labor just gave Scott Morrison the perfect excuse to keep talking about it until election day.