While Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused Mr Shorten of lacking “steel” on border protection, the Opposition Leader said he repudiated the government’s attempts to “whip up fear and hysteria, seeking to lure people smugglers to entice people onto boats to come to Australia”.

“I think this country in 2019 is not the same nation as 2001. I do not believe that Australians want a government which governs by slogans and fear,” Mr Shorten said.

“We can have strong borders in this country – and I’m grateful for the work of Australian Border Force, the ADF and our public service – but strong borders does not need to come at the price of humane treatment of people who’ve been in our care for half a decade or more.”

The reference to 2001 harks back to the beginning of the highly-charged debate over boat people debate in Australian politics, when John Howard refused to allow the Norwegian cargo ship, MV Tampa, from landing at Christmas Island with survivors of a people smuggling venture. The hardline stance Mr Howard adopted against boat people helped him the election a few months after.

Despite the people smuggling trade being shut down through Operation Sovereign Borders, the Morrison government has seized on the issue, believing Labor has made a major error in reopening the debate on borders, a key Coalition policy strength.

The issue has galvanised the party and given the backbench hope, with Coalition sources saying if it causes a tightening in the polls, it may lead to panic in the Labor.

At the same time, views in Labor are mixed, ranging from believing it to be the right thing to do to one of trepidation and anxiety. One senior figure said it would be weeks before it became apparent whether the tactic would backfire.

Shadow ministers and MPs who are veterans of the Rudd-Gillard era, left scarred when 50,000 boat arrivals came, insist the party is resolute not to weaken border protection.

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