We are all gearing up for the third election in a row when boat turnbacks and the punitive treatment of refugees and asylum seekers feature. It need not be so. It’s time voters sent a message that it should not be so. The overwhelming majority of our politicians and the overwhelming majority of voters are agreed that the boats from Indonesia carrying asylum seekers transiting Indonesia should be stopped, and the refugees and asylum seekers who have been languishing on Nauru and Manus Island should be treated decently and humanely. The disagreement is over whether after five and more years of aimless waiting and suspension, all those who are sick can be given appropriate medical attention either on site or in Australia. A recent swathe of court cases demonstrates that when the decision whether to conduct a medical evacuation is left to Mr Dutton’s public servants, the decision cannot always be classed as decent and humane. A narrow majority of our politicians thought it was time to insist that such medical decisions always be decent and humane. They remain insistent that the boats remain stopped, with turnbacks in place.
Last Wednesday night, Jacinta Collins, the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate, announced her retirement from parliament. In her valedictory speech, she made a telling observation: ‘I regret that officials did not alert Labor when we were in government that boat interceptions or turnbacks could safely occur. Much of what followed might not have subsequently occurred.’ This needs to be unpacked.
At the 2013 election, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were equally committed to stopping the boats. While Abbott placed great store on turnbacks, Rudd thought the same result could be achieved only by other means. He negotiated deals with PNG and Nauru and announced that no asylum seeker taken to those places would ever be permitted to settle in Australia. Prime Minister Rudd, presumably with comprehensive security and military briefings, thought that the conditions for legal turnbacks could not be fulfilled. Abbott, without the benefit of the regular briefings available only to government, was able to wing it and promise turnbacks.
On his election as prime minister, Abbott instituted Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) and within two months, turnbacks were a centerpiece of OSB. Many of us were troubled by the secrecy of the turnback arrangements because the previous year the expert panel chaired by the respected ex-head of the military Angus Houston had reported ‘that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met’. So what had changed?
Up until the 2015 ALP national conference, Abbott and his minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison taunted Labor for its failure to embrace turnbacks. For example, on 28 May 2014, Morrison told Parliament: ‘We need to stay the course on border protection and those opposite would change it all because they oppose the successful border protection policies of this government. They will turn back on turnbacks, you can be sure of that. This government will not be turning on turnbacks, you can be assured.’ Three months later, he was still at it: ‘On turnbacks, we implemented the turnback policy which they said could never work and could never be done. When they see the results of that policy staring them in the face, they cannot support it now. The people of Australia know that, if they cannot support turnbacks now after the results they have seen, they will never support them, and they can never be trusted to put them in place.’ At that time, there was no publicly available evidence that the turnbacks were lawful and safe. We were being asked to trust a non-transparent government.
With the clock ticking and with proven refugees starting to languish on Nauru and Manus Islands for two years without any prospect of resettlement, Abbott insisted: ‘We will do whatever is necessary within the law and in accordance with our values as a decent and humane society to stop the boats and to ensure that they stay stopped. That is what we will do.’ This was Abbott’s constant refrain – tough, decent and humane! The government would be tough on border protection, stopping the boats, refusing permanent resettlement in Australia, but always treating people ‘humanely and decently’ while they waited for resettlement elsewhere or until they decided to return home should they be proved not to be refugees. Meanwhile he continued to taunt Labor about turnbacks, in Parliament and on the airwaves: ‘They always laugh when they are embarrassed. They do not know where they stand on turnbacks.’
We, the public, were still none the wiser as to whether Angus Houston’s preconditions for turnbacks had been fulfilled. The pressure on the ALP resulted in a change of policy at the 2015 ALP National Conference. Bill Shorten won the day gaining an endorsement for ‘safe’ turnbacks. His opponents included Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong. But Shorten was able to build a united front telling the media, ‘We’ve had our debates in public, the Labor Party really argued this issue through, and I’m pleased to say that they backed my call.’
Since then, Labor has been able to put itself forward with a bipartisan commitment to stopping the boats safely. For example, Shayne Neumann, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, told Parliament on 9 November 2016: ‘The boats have stopped, and the bipartisan policy that combines offshore processing and boat turnbacks, when safe to do so, works.’
For more than two years, Labor has been adamant that there is not a sliver of light between them and the government on turnbacks and stopping the boats. Last Wednesday morning, Tony Burke, the Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast, ‘There remains a bipartisan turnback policy that I would be surprised, deeply surprised, if the government decided to not implement it…The real shift was when a way was found to be able to conduct turnbacks again. Once that happened, it was bipartisan to support that and that means that if someone puts their lives at risk on the high seas, they are turned back and sent back to Jakarta.’
So that brings us back to Tony Abbott’s constant refrain that with the boats stopped, our government will treat everyone firmly, but decently and humanely. It’s no surprise that after more than five years living precariously and on hold, refugees and asylum seekers who are still Australia’s responsibility develop physical and psychiatric conditions that need to be treated here. Just as we have depoliticised safe turnbacks, we must now depoliticise appropriate medical treatment by competent decision makers. Listening to Messrs Morrison, Dutton and Pyne this past week, one could be forgiven for thinking it was no longer possible to stop the boats while treating everyone decently and humanely as Mr Abbott would say. To form government in Australia today, you need to be able to stop the boats safely, lawfully, and effectively, while treating everyone, especially the sick, humanely and decently. If you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be in government.