The Coalition has moved to bring back border protection as a key election issue after Labor leader Anthony Albanese claimed that offshore detention was no longer needed to stop boats arriving by sea.

Albanese said on Thursday people attempting to arrive in Australia by boat will be turned back to avoid offshore detention, but didn’t clarify whether offshore detention was still a Labor policy.

Scott Morrison’s team has looked to pounce on Anthony Albanese’s comments on offshore detention.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen, Rhett Wyman

Labor has previously supported the government’s policies on boat turnbacks and offshore detention, but has opposed the policy of temporary protection visas.

“We’ll turn boats back. Turning boats back means that you don’t need offshore detention,” Albanese told reporters in Cessnock on Thursday.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton said it was a “very dangerous statement”.

“That would be a remarkable departure from the Labor Party policy. If that is what he’s said, that would be a weakening of the policy that even Julia Gillard had,” he told Sydney radio 2GB on Thursday morning.

“You can’t just turn people around and I’m really stunned by that I’ve got to say. I think this is a really significant watershed moment for them.”

According to the Coalition, all three pillars of its approach – turnbacks, offshore detention and temporary protection visas – are needed to deter people smugglers from attempting to reach Australia by boat.

In many cases, boat turnbacks and tow backs are not safe to perform and Australia needs Indonesia’s permission to do so.

The issue of boat arrivals has been a battlefield in previous elections after more than 1000 asylum seekers died at sea between 2007 and 2013 under Labor governments.

But the Coalition has been widely criticised by humanitarian organisations for keeping asylum seekers in detention centres for years and being slow to find alternatives for them to resettle.

At least 12 people have died in Australia’s offshore processing centres of Nauru and Manus Island since 2013.

Australia last month came to an agreement with New Zealand to resettle 450 refugees from Nauru as well as people who are in onshore detention – nine years after the offer was first put on the table.

Campaigning in Tasmania, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Albanese “has had every position on border protection. He has supported everything he is opposed, and he’s opposed everything that he’s supported”.

“I designed the boat turnback policy. I implemented it. And I stood up to criticism day after day after day,” he said.

“People said this was an inhumane policy, it wouldn’t work, there’s no way you could make it happen. And I stood firm on that policy and then I implemented it, and it worked, and we stopped the deaths at sea.”

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