Kevin Rudd accuses Malcolm Turnbull of lying over asylum seeker ‘begging’ claims

The then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull listens to the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Glen McCurtayneThe public feud between Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd has escalated, with the former Labor leader accusing the Prime Minister of lying about their private discussions on asylum seeker policy.

Mr Rudd has challenged Mr Turnbull to provide evidence to support his repeated assertions that he “begged” Mr Rudd not to dismantle the Pacific Solution policy introduced by John Howard to stop the boats.

He has branded the Turnbull account a “total reinvention of history” to “try and pretend he has had a consistent position on Manus and Nauru”, saying Mr Turnbull was not even opposition leader when the policy was dismantled.

The charge came as Mr Turnbull branded Mr Rudd a “liar” in an address to his MPs and used the Parliament to ramp up pressure on Labor to support the Coalition’s lifetime ban on refugees processed offshore visiting Australia, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton suggesting the move was a precursor to refugees being resettled from Nauru and Manus Island.

Mr Turnbull has consistently maintained he “begged” Mr Rudd not to dismantle the Pacific Solution, which included detaining asylum seekers in camps on Manus Island and Nauru, boat turnbacks and temporary protection visas.

“The Labor Party came into government and were warned by many people including me,” Mr Turnbull told ABC radio last month. “I was leader of the opposition. I begged Kevin Rudd not to change John Howard’s border protection.”

Mr Rudd’s office has collated 16 such statements since October last year, with Mr Rudd saying they represent a “post-facto fabrication”.

“I am making this statement because Mr Turnbull continues to lie about his own position on asylum seekers policy when, in virtually every interview, he falsely alleges he ‘begged’ me at the time not to change Howard’s policy,” Mr Rudd says in a statement provided to Fairfax Media.

“Mr Turnbull’s record on this matter is as truthful as his statements during the notorious Godwin Grech affair,” he added, in a reference to the affair that triggered a collapse in Mr Turnbull public approval when he was opposition leader in 2009. “Both rest on absolute falsehoods.”

Mr Turnbull launched a scathing attack on Mr Rudd while mounting a passionate defence of the proposed ban when he addressed Coalition MPs on Tuesday, insisting those on Manus and Nauru “were put there by Kevin Rudd”.

Citing last week’s claim by Mr Rudd that Labor intended to review its decision to reopen camps on Manus and Nauru in 2013 after 12 months, Mr Turnbull told the MPs Mr Rudd had “once again lied” about his record on border protection policy.

Mr Rudd was asked by Fairfax Media earlier this year to respond to the assertion that Mr Turnbull begged him not to dismantle the Howard-era policies. His reply arrived on Tuesday afternoon. Relations between the two men have deteriorated since the Turnbull government’s decision not to nominate Mr Rudd for United Nations secretary-general.

“There appear to be major problems with the accuracy of Mr Turnbull’s account,” he said.

“First, the government announced in December 2007 the end of Mr Howard’s Pacific Solution. This was consistent with our pre-election commitments. This was completed on the 8 February 2008, when the last asylum seekers left Nauru. The problem is Mr Turnbull was not opposition leader at the time. Dr [Brendan] Nelson was opposition leader,” he said.

“Second, on becoming opposition leader in September 2008, Mr Turnbull had little to say on asylum policy, let alone ‘begging’ me to restore Mr Howard’s policy.”

Mr Rudd maintains Mr Turnbull’s first comments on asylum seekers policy were made in a November 2008 press conference when he said: “I am concerned that the government is not sending a strong enough signal that it will not tolerate people smuggling. Now that’s all I have to say about it”.

He asserts it was not until December 2008 that Mr Turnbull “flagged his single concern as being one about temporary protection visas, not Manus and Nauru”.

“Once again, Mr Turnbull is re-writing history to appeal to the mad right of his own party in order to hang on to his increasingly imperilled job.”

Mr Turnbull’s office responded, saying: “As leader of the opposition Malcolm Turnbull repeatedly opposed Kevin Rudd’s dismantling of strong border protection policies.” It pointed to a number of public statements by Mr Turnbull in 2009, including one where he said: “We had policies in government which were effective. The Rudd government abandoned them and, as a consequence, we have seen a dramatic increase in unauthorised boat arrivals.”

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