The moral depravity of Australian funded and orchestrated holding of asylum seekers, including children, on Nauru and Manus Island is to continue.
On Wednesday the High Court made clear that it is in no position to question the retrospective law passed by the Commonwealth Parliament on 30 June 2015 authorising the Australian Government to do whatever it takes to assist countries like Nauru with the detention of asylum seekers sent there by Australia as of 18 August 2012.
The court ruled by six to one that offshore detention and processing of asylum seekers was valid according to this law authorising the Australian government to enter into agreements with other governments and contracts with corporations to provide ‘garrison and welfare services’ in offshore regional processing centres such as Nauru and Manus Island.
The sole dissentient was the newest judge, Justice Gordon.
The case arose out of a claim by a Bangladeshi woman (categorised as an ‘unauthorised maritime arrival’ or ‘UMA’) who had been intercepted on 19 October 2013 on a boat headed for Australia seeking asylum. She was transferred to Christmas Island the next day. Three months later she was transferred to Nauru where she was held in detention at a refugee-processing centre for over six months.
Because of medical complications with her pregnancy which could not be treated adequately on Nauru, she was transferred temporarily back to Australia where she gave birth to her child on 16 December 2014. Not relishing the thought of taking her baby to the hellish conditions of Nauruan detention, she applied to the High Court questioning the legal validity of the offshore detention and processing regime.
The Commonwealth’s lawyers obviously thought she had an arguable case. On 30 June 2015, the Commonwealth Parliament enacted the Migration Amendment (Regional Processing Arrangements) Act 2015 (Cth), which inserted s 198AHA into the Migration Act, with retrospective effect to 18 August 2012. This law authorised the government to take any action or ‘make payments, or cause payments to be made, in relation to the arrangement or the regional processing functions’ in other countries.
Presumably the Nauruan government lawyers and political advisers also thought there might be some problems. On 2 October 2015, just days before the High Court hearing, the Government of Nauru announced its intention ‘to allow for freedom of movement of asylum seekers 24 hours per day, seven days per week’ from 5 October 2015 and to introduce legislation to that effect at the next sitting of the Nauruan Parliament. The High Court was duly informed of these developments.
It is fair to say that prior to October 2015, the Commonwealth expected Nauru to detain these people, and with that expectation being realised was prepared to remunerate Nauru very handsomely, with retrospective parliamentary endorsement.
With the air of unreality reserved to the highest courts (and perhaps some religious authorities) three of the judges observed that ‘the Commonwealth could not compel or authorise Nauru to make or enforce the laws which required that the plaintiff be detained’ and thus the Commonwealth was not legally responsible for the detention.
These three majority judges did concede some limit to Commonwealth complicity in Australian funded detention of asylum seekers by another country: ‘If the regional processing country imposes a detention regime as a condition of the acceptance of UMAs removed from Australia, the Commonwealth may only participate in that regime if, and for so long as, it serves the purpose of processing.’
Another of the majority judges, Justice Keane, said ‘the plaintiff’s submission that regional processing is punitive because it is designed to have a deterrent effect on the movement of asylum seekers must be rejected. A deterrent effect may be an intended consequence of the operation of regional processing arrangements, but the immediate purpose of s 198AHA is the facilitation of the removal of unauthorised maritime arrivals from Australia.’
I daresay none of these judicial niceties will bring much comfort to the Bangladeshi mum who might feel that her baby is being punished by being taken to Nauru where both of them could remain for up to ten years should they be found to be refugees, pending resettlement in Cambodia or any other participating third country.
If the Australian Constitution contained provisions similar to the human rights protections contained in the Nauruan Constitution, the High Court may have been able to offer some relief. But the High Court made clear that the detention of asylum seekers on Nauru was detention by the Nauruan government authorised by the Nauruan parliament, and thus it would be a matter for the Nauruan courts to determine if such executive action and legislative authorisation were constitutional.
The Nauruan Constitution, unlike the Australian Constitution, sets strict limits on the government’s and the parliament’s power to detain persons and to deprive them of their liberty. Australia just happens to fund and facilitate the arrangements authorised by the Nauruan government and parliament, whether or not those arrangements are constitutionally valid.
Justice Gageler rightly observed: ‘Their detention at the Regional Processing Centre has been under the authority of Nauruan legislation, the validity of which under the Constitution of Nauru is controversial.’
Justice Gageler, our strongest civil libertarian judge (having been the Commonwealth Solicitor-General during some of the more difficult years of Australian asylum policy), considered that ‘the plaintiff’s central claim (that the Commonwealth and the Minister acted beyond the executive power of the Commonwealth by procuring and enforcing her detention at the Regional Processing Centre between 24 March 2014 and 2 August 2014) to have been well-founded until 30 June 2015, when s 198AHA was inserted with retrospective effect’.
If returned to Nauru, presumably the plaintiff and her baby will no longer be detained, given Nauru’s newfound commitment to liberty for asylum seekers transferred from Australia. That then raises the fundamental political and moral question: why do we still want to transfer people like this (including babies) to countries like Nauru, Manus Island and Cambodia?
Just after Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, I wrote to him and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten suggesting a bipartisan announcement at the opening of parliament this year. I suggested that each address the Parliament reconfirming their commitment to stopping the boats and turning back those who are not in direct flight from persecution in Indonesia. I urged the announcement of an agreed date for the closure of the facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.
I conceded that immediate closure of these facilities might allow unscrupulous people smugglers to ply their trade again with the message to asylum seekers in Indonesia that the appointment of a new Australian Prime Minister warranted renewed attempts at gaining access to Australia. I wrote, ‘But after an appropriate delay, you could negate that possibility and you could close these facilities without any risk of asylum seekers thinking that Australia was once again a possible boat destination.’
Neither Turnbull nor Shorten was interested, repeating the mantras about preventing people smuggling, saving lives at sea and maintaining the integrity of Australia’s borders. But all this can be done without sending this mum and her baby to Nauru. We’re now told it can be done without actually detaining anyone on Nauru.
In the past, we were solemnly assured that it was necessary to detain these people in order to send a message to other asylum seekers waiting in Indonesia. The boats have stopped. They will stay stopped. Any boats that try to get here will be turned back provided only there can be the assurance that no one on board is in direct flight from persecution in Indonesia.
The people smugglers and their prospective clients now know that people are no longer held in detention on Nauru. It is no longer the hellish or uncertain conditions (with or without detention) on Nauru that deters people from getting on boats. It is the vigilance of our intelligence and military personnel which does that. The door is locked.
All major political parties are agreed on the need to stop the boats. The heads of the Australian defence force are now confident that the boats have stopped and that any future boats will be stopped or turned back. This is a very different situation from four years ago.
When Prime Minister Gillard failed to have her Malaysia solution implemented, she set up an expert panel chaired by Air Chief Marshall Houston. In August 2012, the Houston panel told the government that ‘the conditions required for effective, lawful and safe turnbacks of irregular vessels headed for Australia with asylum seekers on board are not currently met in regard to turnbacks to Indonesia’.
So they looked for other short-term measures. Having studied Prime Minister Howard’s 2001 Pacific solution, the panel concluded that ‘in the short term, the establishment of processing facilities in Nauru as soon as practical is a necessary circuit breaker to the current surge in irregular migration to Australia’. Four years on, the Houston assessment of turnbacks would appear to be outdated and there is no longer a need for a circuit breaker. There is no surge; the boats have stopped.
Before becoming Prime Minister, Turnbull insisted that our treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island was ‘harsh, but not cruel’. Now that there is no purpose to be served by maintaining the facilities on Nauru and Manus Island, the treatment of those persons is cruel as well as harsh.
A prompt resolution of the matter is required unless Australia is to be left with a legacy of shame which will be sure to be disclosed at a future royal commission with plaintive cries from our past leaders and retired public servants: ‘We didn’t know the trauma caused to children and others fleeing persecution by being placed in such uncertain, isolated hell holes.’
There is no joy to be found in our High Court applying a Constitution even more bereft of human rights protections than the Nauruan Constitution. It’s time for our politicians to address the political and moral question: what purpose is actually served by sending this mum and her baby back to Nauru, given that the boats have stopped and will stay stopped regardless of where we now place this mother and child and others like them?
It’s time to walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s not an either/or proposition. There is no longer any need for a circuit breaker. The circuit is permanently cut. We can prevent people smuggling, save lives at sea, maintain the integrity of our borders and deal decently with the residual caseload of asylum seekers including this mother and her child.
Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University and Adjunct Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. This article was first published in Eureka Street on 3 February 2016.