Peter Dutton joins frontbench rebuff of Abbott's immigration speech

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Peter Dutton has joined Scott Morrison in rebuffing a push by Tony Abbott to cut migration, arguing the government “has got the settings right”.

But Abbott has immediately returned fire, accusing Morrison of being “captured” by the treasury and being tin-eared politically, living in a “Canberra bubble” and swallowing the advice of “so-called experts”.

Morrison early on Wednesday comprehensively rebuffed a new public foray by Abbott contending that migration should be cut by 80,000 places, and he was joined later in the day by Dutton, the home affairs minister, who was more diplomatic than the treasurer during an outing at the National Press Club, but also argued in favour of the status quo.

Abbott ignored the Dutton rebuff and used a radio interview to return fire on Morrison, declaring the treasurer was “wrong” and had been “captured” by his department.

“Let me repeat that, that is Scott’s problem, he has been captured by his department,” Abbott told 2GB. “Treasury is always in favour of more migration, but the point that I make ... is we cannot let the treasury’s accounting rules determine what is in our long-term and medium-term best national interest.

“I want us to win the next election and, sure, people like Scott can say, ‘oh, everything we are doing now is right’. If you believe the polls, and it is the prime minister who, let’s face it, sets such great store by the polls, if you believe the polls, obviously we aren’t doing everything right.”

Abbott said he had “some experience” winning elections and taking seats off the Labor party, and was therefore qualified to express a view.

“If we want to have a fighting chance of winning the next election, some things have got to change and this is something which we could well change, which I think would be principled, pragmatic and maybe even popular,” Abbott said.

Abbott used a speech at the Sydney Institute on Tuesday to call on the Turnbull government to cut immigration levels from 190,000 people a year to 110,000.

Morrison said that proposal would cost the budget $4-5bn over four years. The treasurer noted the permanent migration intake was “exactly the same as it was” when Abbott was prime minister and had remained the same since 2011.

Dutton has previously signalled interest in cutting the intake, but on Wednesday at the National Press Club he said his comments in mid-February “wasn’t a departure from what I’ve said previously”.

He said as the minister responsible for immigration, “I want to bring people in as young as possible, as highly skilled as possible, so they’re paying taxes for longer, they’re contributing to Australian society and that they’re helping build our nation”.

“The number will ebb and flow, but that’s the basis on which we’ve made decisions about our migration program,” he said. “There’s an economic benefit to bringing people in who are skilled, who will work and pay taxes and contribute to society. It’s not just a social dividend. There’s a significant economic dividend.”

In a broad-ranging speech, Dutton flagged reworking the foreign fighters legislation to allow returning combatants to be prosecuted successfully – although he ruled out withdrawing from international treaties as a mechanism to toughen the domestic legal framework.

Dutton flagged the desirability of school children making a loyalty pledge to Australia. “In my view, there is a place for the pledge in a broader, rejuvenated civics effort with school-age children, regardless of their background.”

The minister also defended the length of time it was taking to investigate the head of the border force, Roman Quaedvlieg, who has been on leave with pay for nine months while allegations that he arranged employment for a girlfriend are investigated. Dutton said the current processes were about ensuring natural justice prevailed and he didn’t intend to interfere in a legal process.

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