Both the Turnbull government and the Shorten opposition are committed to ‘stopping the boats’. Tony Abbott’s mantra is now the political orthodoxy on both sides of the political aisle in Canberra. Labor knows it has no chance of winning an election unless its commitment to keeping the boats stopped is as firm as the government’s.
The political difference is no longer over stopping the boats. Both sides are committed to takebacks and turnbacks, usually to Indonesia, provided the practices of the Australian Border Force and defence forces are safe, legal and transparent. The political brawl is about keeping refugees on Nauru and Manus Island without a permanent solution, and the claim that this is a necessary precondition for keeping the boats stopped.
Peter Dutton, the Minister for Many Things — Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection — smelt blood last week after Labor’s newest recruit in the House of Representatives, Ged Kearney, told Parliament in her first speech: ‘I doubt we can afford the ongoing cost to our national psyche of subjecting men, women and children to years of punitive indefinite detention. We must, as a priority, move the asylum seekers off Manus and Nauru to permanent resettlement and ensure that indefinite detention never happens again.’
Kearney was backed by Labor frontbencher Linda Burney when interviewed by David Speers on SkyNews. Labor then doctored the transcript to downplay the commitment to a deadline for emptying the camps on Nauru and Manus Island.
Then, following a death of a refugee on Manus Island, the Greens’ Adam Bandt had a go at Dutton in Question Time asking, ‘Is it now government policy to leak to the media about the death of someone under your care and not notify next of kin, and doesn’t this fundamental lack of human decency show that there’s simply no line you won’t cross?’
Dutton has no time for what he regards as the moral superiority of the Greens and the Labor Left when it comes to refugee policy. Taking the moral high ground, Dutton responded, ‘I haven’t put anyone on Manus Island; you did. I am charged with getting those people off, and I’m doing it. This government — not the government that you were in coalition with, the Rudd and the Gillard governments — has brokered a deal to get 1200 people off Manus and Nauru.’
With by-elections just around the corner, including a couple in which the sitting Labor members are on a knife edge, the government is keen to exploit any perception that the opposition parties in parliament are a threat to secure borders and an ordered migration program with strong community approval. The government even received some assistance late in the week from the disgraced Roman Quaedvlieg who had been sacked as Commissioner of the Border Force. He wrote an opinion piece for the Fairfax press declaring, ‘Labor needs to find a way to reconcile its internal policy differences and its policy language on this issue or it risks inviting another wave of boats to our borders and it will have to grapple with the consequences if it wins the forthcoming federal election.’
There are 939 refugees and asylum seekers still waiting in limbo on Nauru and 716 on Manus Island. This caseload includes 137 children. Most of them have now been there for almost five years. Having accepted 249 proven refugees in the last year, the USA is committed to taking up to another 1000. This will leave another 655 people to be resettled in third countries or to be returned to their home country. So the point of difference is merely over what is to become of these 655 people.
Quaedvlig told Fairfax that the US might be convinced to take more refugees ‘if the uplifts and settlements go smoothly’. Meanwhile Dutton says, ‘I don’t want to see anyone on Manus or Nauru. I want them off and we’ve brokered a deal with the US to take 1200 people. There are no other third countries who are immediately available. That’s the reality.’ But there is another third country available: New Zealand.
All three of New Zealand’s recent prime ministers have offered to take 150 refugees a year from the Pacific camps. When New Zealand has dealt directly with PNG repeating the offer, Australia has vetoed the suggestion on the basis that refugees resettled in New Zealand would be able to travel without a visa to Australia. Dutton continues to argue that this could send a message to the people smugglers. That was never a problem for John Howard when he accepted a similar New Zealand offer. The boats did not start up again.
At the Senate Estimates hearing last year, Air Vice Marshal Osborne, Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force, said, ‘Our ability to detect, intercept and turn back people smuggling boats is stronger than ever. We have a committed and highly capable civil maritime surveillance and border security response fleet with access to the combined resources of the Australian Border Force and the Australian Defence Force.’ At the Senate Estimates hearing last week, he told the Senate: ‘Our figures have not changed since the last estimates. We’ve intercepted 32 vessels’ since 2013 carrying 800 persons.
Even with the assurance that the majority of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island will be resettled in the USA, the boats have not started coming again. The boats are stopped, not because refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are being treated badly but because the diplomatic arrangements with Indonesia are in place to stop the people smuggling networks in Java and because the Australian border forces have the resources at hand to engage in any necessary turnbacks and takebacks. There is now no way that Labor is wanting to unpick those diplomatic and security arrangements.
The point of difference now comes down to how promptly an Australian government will take up the New Zealand offer to empty the Pacific camps. Labor will do so promptly if elected. The Coalition wants to continue playing it safe, putting on continued hold the lives of those on Nauru and Manus Island who do not make the cut for the USA. No doubt there is some political advantage for the Coalition with this approach. But is it needed to retain the security of our borders?
If the movement of refugees to the USA is not a problem when it comes to maintaining the security cordon for stopping the boats, then why not simply amend the Australian migration regulations to require that any refugee from Nauru or Manus Island who resettles in New Zealand be required to obtain a visa to travel to Australia? Michael Pezzullo, Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, told Estimates last week, ‘The New Zealand offer is welcome, and it’s certainly been the subject of expressions of appreciation on the part of the Australian government, but unless and until that question of on-travel can be addressed and resolved — once we’re in a position to do that, it might be more possible to take up that offer.’
By week’s end, Dutton was conceding that the New Zealand offer might be accepted, even without such a change to the visa laws. When pressed on the New Zealand offer, he told journalists: ‘So at this point in time, maybe at some stage in the future when you are down to a small number of people, we aren’t at that stage.’
For the good of the refugees who have languished for five years on Nauru and Manus Island, and for the good of the Australian body politic, it’s time to put an end to this inhumane chapter in Australian history. Keep the boats stopped. Bring New Zealand into the mix now. Empty the camps. And fight your elections on matters of substance which don’t impose untold harm on defenceless children. Both Messrs Shorten and Turnbull need to acknowledge that Ged Kearney is right.
Frank Brennan SJ AO is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.
First published in Eureka Street, 24 May 2018.