Having done its best in Opposition to wreck the Malaysian Arrangement in 2011, the Turnbull government is now seeking the help of Malaysia over detainees in Manus and Nauru. For political cynicism, this is hard to beat.
In May 2011, the Australian and Malaysian governments announced an ‘in principle’ arrangement that up to 800 boat arrivals would be transferred from Australia to Malaysia for their asylum claims to be heard. In response Australia would be prepared to accept 4,000 refugees from Malaysia. The arrangement with Malaysia was signed on 25 July 2011. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees gave it qualified support. At that period, boat arrivals were running at four to six per month.
The Gillard government introduced legislation to give effect to the arrangement with Malaysia which was necessary as a result of a High Court decision on the transfer of people. That legislation was bitterly opposed by the Coalition and others in an evenly divided House of Representatives. The legislation failed in September 2011 when boats were running at only four in the month.
In this opposition to the Malaysian arrangement, the Coalition was actively supported by the Greens and some key NGOs. The Greens and the NGOs wanted more than was on the table and finished with nothing – or something worse – Manus and Nauru. NGOs need to be politically astute and consider government’s responsibilities on security, economy and society. Or as Gough Whitlam put it pungently in another context. ‘Only the impotent are pure’.
Failure to pass the legislation to implement the Malaysian Arrangement opened the door for people smugglers to really get to work. As a result of the failure of the Malaysian Arrangement, boat arrivals rose from about four or five a month to 48 in July 2013. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison were not interested in stopping the boats. Their political objective was to stop Labor stopping the boats.
Having helped defeat the legislation in the parliament, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison seized every opportunity to bash Malaysia’s human rights record and ‘canings’.
But now we find that despite this history, the Turnbull government is now discussing with Malaysia ways to resolve the Manus/Nauru mess, a situation which no-one believes is sustainable. Consistent with what I have heard in the region, Laura Tingle in the AFR on February 4, 2016, said
‘Now it emerges that we are once again talking to Malaysia – the country with whom the Labor government was doing a deal … which was supposedly so abhorrent to the Coalition and the cause of human decency. ‘
We have gone cap in hand to the Cambodian government and paid it over $50 million to resettle four refugees from Manus/Nauru. Our government has also been in discussions with the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan but without success. Now the government is talking again to Malaysia which Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison reviled in 2011.
Tony Abbott helped to keep the door open for people smugglers by successfully but unscrupulously contributing to the defeat the Malaysian Arrangement.
The Malaysian Arrangement was not ideal, but it would have significantly helped manage the flow of desperate people. It would also have been a building block for a regional framework which is necessary to manage displaced people in our region.
I will be writing further about the importance of this regional framework.
The result of the failure of the Malaysian Arrangement is the depravity of Manus and Nauru. Political cynicism has been exposed but at great cost to very vulnerable people.
We have become a pariah in our treatment of asylum seekers.Even if we are stuck with Manus and Nauru for a while yet, there is no excuse for the Australian Government allowing detainees being treated so inhumanely.