ROBERT MANNE. A Symbol of Inhumanity: Australia’s Uniquely Harsh Asylum Seeker Policy – How Did It Come to This?

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University. An earlier version of this analysis was published a year ago, but Professor Manne has written a new postscript in light of some disturbing recent events on Manus Island.

If you had been told thirty years ago that Australia would create the least asylum seeker friendly institutional arrangements in the world, you would not have been believed.

In 1992 we introduced a system of indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Since that time, we have accepted the idea that certain categories of refugees and asylum seekers can be imprisoned indefinitely; that those who are intercepted by our navy should be forcibly returned to the point of departure; that those who haven’t been able to be forcibly returned should be imprisoned indefinitely on remote Pacific Islands; and that those marooned on these island camps should never be allowed to settle in Australia even after several years.

How then has this come to pass? There are two main ways of explaining this.

The first is what can be called analytical narrative: the creation of an historical account that shows the circumstances in which the decisions were made and how one thing led to another. I have tried my hand at several of these.

The second way is to look at more general lines of explanation. I want to suggest five possibilities. These general lines of explanation are not alternatives to each other but complementary. Nor do they constitute an alternative to explanation by way of analytical narrative. Rather, they attempt to illuminate some of the general reasons the story took the shape it did.

Immigration absolutism

It is very common to explain the creation of Australia’s uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker system of border control as a partially disguised return of the old racism of the White Australia Policy. This now seems to me mistaken. Even though there have been occasional political hiccups – I think of Blainey in 1984, Howard in 1988, Hanson 1.0 in 1996 and Hanson 2.0 in 2016 – one of the more remarkable achievements of Australian history has been the seamless transformation of white Australia to a multiracial and multicultural society since the early 1970s.

Nor is there evidence that Australians are hostile to non-European refugees selected by the government. As I observed as a refugee advocate in the late 1970s, it was easier for the Fraser government to settle 70,000 Indo-Chinese refugees from the camps of South-East Asia that the government had selected than it was to allay public fear or anger over the 2,000 Vietnamese who arrived in Darwin spontaneously by boat.

There is, however, another aspect of the White Australia Policy that is usually overlooked – namely, its absolutism: the almost 100-year conviction that not a single person of non-European stock should ever be permitted to settle in Australia. In my view it has been the absolutism, embedded in the so-called Australian immigration culture of control, rather than the racism of the White Australia Policy per se, which helps explain our recent policy history, now animated by a new absolutist ambition: that we should strive for a situation where not even one asylum seeker boat reaches our shores.

Party politics: Howard’s curse

It is obvious that the Tampa “crisis” of August-September 2001 was the most important moment in the creation of Australia’s contemporary asylum seeker policies. There is no need to rehearse what happened once again. For obvious reasons, the creation of the offshore processing centres and, even more importantly, the use of the Australian Navy to turn back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia were crucial for the future.

What, however, is less often discussed is the way in which the Prime Minister, John Howard, spurned the bipartisanship over asylum seeker policy offered him by Kim Beazley, and the long-term consequences of his political opportunism. During the Tampa “crisis,” Beazley supported every radical measure taken by the government. Memorably, he said this was no time for “carping.” The only bridge too far for Beazley was a bill that denied that it would be a criminal offence for a border control official to take the life of an asylum seeker.

Howard seized on that remark. For the purpose of the 2001 election and in the election campaigns of 2004, 2010, 2013 and 2016 (with 2007 being the exception), the Coalition has been able profitably to accuse Labor of being weak on border protection. It was not only Tony Abbott who based his prime ministerial credentials on the success of his border control policies. In the last election campaign, Malcolm Turnbull used the trope of Labor’s weakness on border security as the one populist element in what was essentially a non-populist election pitch.

The consequence of this has been that over the past 15 years the possibility of an even remotely humane reform of the system carries with it the chance of severe electoral punishment for the Labor Party. The only hope now for a return of some humanity to the policy is the willingness of a Coalition government to initiate such reform, or to offer Labor bipartisanship in trying to work together to find a less cruel and ruinous policy.

I call the last fifteen years of opportunistic partisan contention over asylum seeker policy “Howard’s curse.”

Bureaucratic inertia: automaticity

The history of anti-asylum seeker border control policy is a history of deterrence measures. The first two that were tried – mandatory detention and temporary protection – failed, at least as measured by the absolutist standards of the immigration authorities. The second two measures that were introduced by the Howard government in the spring of 2001 – offshore processing and forcible turn-back to point of departure – succeeded. Between 2002 and 2007, virtually no boats reached Australia.

What is interesting about this history is the force of bureaucratic inertia, the continued expansion of the system in a way that was unrelated to evidence or experience. It was clear by the second half of 2002 that the combination of offshore processing and turn-backs had successfully stopped the arrival of asylum seeker boats. It was also clear by late-2013 that the combination of offshore processing, naval turn-backs and now Kevin Rudd’s July 2013 addition, no settlement in Australia, ever – which I call “Rudd’s curse” – had once again successfully stopped the boats.

Yet in both cases, this had no influence on softening policy with regard to the earlier deterrent measures – mandatory detention and temporary protection – which had by now been rendered entirely redundant. The ends had been achieved by other means. Yet the earlier means were nonetheless retained.

How is the purposelessness of this cruelty – which is presently rendering the lives of 30,000 refugees or asylum seekers in Australia miserable – to be explained? In his analysis of post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia, The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel outlines in some detail a system that no longer serves any interest – where within the system both the relation of different measures to each other and the relation of means to ends had long been forgotten by everyone. He calls the engine that drives this system “automaticity.”

Despite the fact that no asylum seeker boats now reach Australia, in essence because of the success of the turn-back policy, the mandatory detention system is maintained; refugees are granted temporary visas that offer no hope of citizenship or permanent settlement; some asylum seekers who cannot be deported are still locked away indefinitely; refugees and asylum seekers who have been sent to offshore processing centres are left to rot there permanently.

The force of bureaucratic inertia, the reign of automaticity, helps explain the purposeless cruelty of so much of the current asylum seeker system.


There has been only one time in the history of the anti-asylum seeker border protection policy where deterrent measures were dismantled. Rudd abandoned both offshore processing and turn-backs, although his government retained mandatory detention. At the time I thought this partial dismantling a risk. I now think it a mistake.

The consequence of the dismantling of the two most successful dimensions of the deterrent system was the arrival between 2009 and 2013 of some 50,000 asylum seekers by boat and more than 1,000 drownings. Because of this experience, a curious mindset, which was already present in the Howard years, came to dominate the key policymakers and immigration public servants during the period of both the Abbott and Turnbull governments.

The mindset suggested that if even one brick in the asylum seeker deterrent system was removed, the entire building would collapse. By now the Immigration Minister, the Immigration Department and the relevant Defence officials all agreed with each other that large numbers of boats would return if even the slightest change was allowed to be made to the anti-asylum seeker edifice that had been constructed over the past 25 years.

Let one example of this strange mindset suffice. Back in 2015, doctors and nurses at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne announced that they would not return the handful of gravely damaged children under their care to a detention centre in Melbourne. The Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, responded by saying that the result of their irresponsible behaviour would be naval officers pulling the bodies of dead children from the ocean. The Minister apparently sincerely believed that freeing a few children from detention in Melbourne would send an international signal to the people smugglers that would see a return of the boats and the drownings. This was telling evidence of how far by now officials in Canberra have lost touch with reality. Officials now believe that one act of human decency will lead to an armada of asylum seeker boats setting out for Australia.

One reason for the purposeless cruelty of the current asylum seeker policy is, then, the severe case of groupthink – the willingness of intelligent people to still their critical capacities in the interest of conformity – that now afflicts Canberra.

The banality of evil

At present more than 2,000 men, women and children are slowly being destroyed in body and spirit. Some are being destroyed because they have been marooned on Nauru and Manus Island for three years or more. A small number of refugees or asylum seekers have been imprisoned for several years in Australia because of the existence of an adverse ASIO file, or because Iran will not accept involuntary repatriation. Among the families of those who were brought from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, 300 now live in daily, crippling fear of return.

I am certain that the Immigration and Defence officials who are responsible for administering the policy are not sadists. There is thus something further about our willingness to inflict such cruelty that needs to be explained.

The most important idea in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is what she called “the banality of evil.” The idea is usually misunderstood. In essence, what Arendt tried to explain was how evil acts might be perpetrated by conventional individuals because of their blindness, their loss of the capacity to see what it was that they were doing. Arendt’s idea helped explain how the atmosphere created within Nazi Germany allowed the most extreme of all state-sponsored acts of political evil to appear to a conventional character like Adolf Eichmann to be normal.

The extreme context from which the idea emerged does not mean, however, that the concept of the banality of evil cannot illuminate far smaller matters. A detailed moral history of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 has not yet been written. What it would reveal is the process whereby the arteries of the nation gradually hardened; how as a nation we gradually lost the capacity to see the horror of what it was that we were willing to do to innocent fellow human beings who had fled in fear and sought our help.

Last year, an inmate on Nauru set himself on fire and died. Peter Dutton argued in response that people self-immolate so they can get to Australia. It took thirty years of brutal behaviour for a remark like this to be possible and for Australians not to notice how truly remarkable was the Minister’s brutality.


Our current uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker policy is grounded in the absolutist ambitions that can, in my view, best be explained by Australia’s long-term migration history and its associated culture of control. It has become entrenched because of the force of bureaucratic inertia that has seen the system grow automatically while any interest in, or understanding of, the relation of means to ends has been lost. And it is presently maintained by an irrational but consensual mindset that has Canberra in its grip: the conviction that even one concession to human kindness will send a message to the people smugglers and bring the whole system crashing down.

Because of these factors, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Immigration and the senior officials of Immigration and Defence are presently allowing the lives of some 2,000 human beings to be destroyed on the basis of faulty but unquestioned speculation, and of another 30,000 in Australia to be rendered acutely insecure and anxious for no purpose. They are willing to allow this to happen because they no longer possess, in the Arendtian sense, the ability to see what it is that they are doing, and because the majority of the nation has become accustomed to thinking of what we are doing as perfectly normal.

Postscript, November 2017

A year has passed since this analysis. Shortly after it was written, the Turnbull government announced that a deal had been struck with the Obama administration whereby up to 1,250 refugees on Nauru and Manus Island would be settled in the United States. Within the logic of Canberra groupthink – remove one brick and the house will fall down – it was assumed that a signal had been sent that would very likely revive the people smuggling trade. Accordingly, when the U.S. deal was announced, Malcolm Turnbull mobilised new naval forces in the Indian Ocean to intercept and repel the anticipated armada of asylum seeker boats.

No asylum seeker boats set sail. This ought to have caused a thorough re-evaluation of refugee policy. As it happened, no policy reconsideration occurred. The refugee groupthink was by now so deeply embedded in the minds of Canberra politicians and public servants that contradictory evidence from the real world was very effectively repelled.

Even after the announcement of the Obama-Turnbull deal, supposedly involving 1,250 refugees, New Zealand’s more modest offer of 150 refugee places continued to be refused. Irrationally, the government clung to their belief that the New Zealand offer, or indeed even the smallest act of humanity extended to asylum seekers and refugees in Australia or Nauru and Manus Island, would inevitably lead to the revival of the people smuggling trade. The automaticity of policy prevailed. The relation of policy means to policy ends had long been forgotten. Evidence challenging the raison d’etre of the policy had become irrelevant.

It was also notable that the Labor Party failed to challenge the by now redundant government position. Once more, the reason is straightforward. It feared that if Shorten Labor announced its willingness to settle any of 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers we had sent to Nauru and Manus Island in Australia, its supposed weakness on border security would be ruthlessly exploited by the Turnbull (or Dutton?) Coalition. Both “Howard’s curse” – the full bipartisanship of cruelty – and “Rudd’s curse” – not even one of the refugees who had been despatched to Nauru and Manus Island since 2012 must ever be allowed to settle in Australia – remain firmly (and tragically) in place.

As everyone knows, shortly after assuming office, the new U.S. President, Donald Trump, spoke to Turnbull by phone. Not long after, the transcript of the Trump-Turnbull conversation was leaked to the Washington Post. Turnbull raised the deal he had struck with Obama. Trump described the Obama offer as “dumb.” Nonetheless, most likely because Australia had been such an unquestioning, lamb-like, ally of the United States for such a long time, Trump grudgingly agreed to honour his predecessor’s “dumb” deal. When Prime Minister Turnbull explained the absolutism of Australia’s policy to Trump – the total ban on settling even one asylum seeker who reached our shores by boat – the U.S. President was both somewhat taken aback and mightily impressed. Here was a country whose refugee policy was even nastier than the one he supported.

In their phone conversation, Turnbull helpfully informed Trump that as long as U.S. officials conducted interviews with at least some asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, even if none were settled, the United States would have fulfilled their side of the bargain. Most likely, officials in Trump’s America took the hint. A full year after Turnbull announced the U.S. deal with the United States, a mere fifty refugees of the supposed 1,250 from Nauru and Manus Island have been accepted for settlement in the United States.

On Manus Island and Nauru, most of the refugees have by now been marooned for three or four years. As the American dream has gradually faded, they were now in an even more hopeless situation than before. Irrefutable evidence of their despair has emerged – for example, the Guardian‘s publication of the scarifying case notes of social workers on Nauru. The public did not give a damn.

Over time, Australia’s asylum seeker policy has created a topsy-turvy world. Refugee acts of self-harm and even suicide are now routinely condemned as childish moral blackmail. Cold government indifference to the unspeakable pain that its policies have inflicted are now widely praised as politically wise and even courageous. The majority of Australians have by now become so blind to the suffering their governments have casually inflicted on refugees over the past fifteen years – from the barbed wire of Woomera to the detention camps of Nauru and Manus Island – that nothing it seems can restore their sight. Evil-doing has come to seem truly banal.

It was left to the Port Moresby Supreme Court to try to teach Australia a legal and moral lesson. According to the court, the indefinite imprisonment of innocent people in Papua New Guinea is unlawful. As a result of this decision, the detention centre on Manus Island had to close. When it finally closed on 31 October, its six hundred inmates were so fearful of what might become of them if forced to live on Manus Island unprotected that they refused to leave the detention centre. To force them out, food, power, medical supplies and water were cut off.. The inmates have had to dig a well so they could remain inside their Manus Island prison.

That well ought to remain forever in our nation’s collective memory, as a symbol of the inhumanity to which our refugee policy has descended.

This article was first published on the ABC Website on 7 November 2017


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tasi timor

Kevin. Beating heart is good. But without the ability to recognise and solve problems it doesn’t pass and neither do those two ex Ministers, now plying us with the elixir of forgetfulness. Being generous to them, we may assume they were taking advice, and chose from among scenarios and options presented with risk assessments the path with least risk. Something along the lines perhaps, of ‘So long as we intercept boats before they make landfall they pose a low security threat, a greater threat comes from those who enter via air and disappear into the community.’ Those who present the… Read more »

tasi timor

‘the banality of evil’ Not difficult to explain. Once you have a career working for what you believe to be the National Interest, career and income security, you don’t want to lose it. You believe you are doing something good, and the bad can be measured against the good and justified. How many senior public servants have resigned over our people smuggling policies and gone public about their reasons? We now have two Opposition Shadow Ministers who when in Gov were among our most incompetent ever Immigration Ministers, asking the public to once more trust them, this time with money.… Read more »

Kevin Bain

You have an insider perspective which I can’t argue with, but the 2 ministers you refer to (presumably Bowen and Burke) showed a beating heart to this naive observer. See Bowen’s comments on promoting community detention in 2010 (in Tony Ward’s new book p 134-6) and Burke’s move to reduce children in detention in early 2013 looked genuine to me More recently I recall the Aust govt suggested at an international forum that Sunnis in Syria fleeing Assad were not entitled to refugee protection if they had the option to move to a non-Shia region. Er…controlled by ISIS who… Read more »

Kevin Bain

Michael Gordon’s insights shows the llimitations of the tough guy approach to solving the issue. Can the govt swallow its pride?

tasi timor

‘Surely ONA wouldn’t endorse Turnbull’s implicit message to Trump’ That’s not the ONA role. Gov of the day sets priorities, agencies review the knowledge base and identify gaps in knowledge, field agents are then tasked to answer those questions and analysts process the product for distribution to customers. Such a system is not proactive, it’s always behind playing catch up. There has never been a shortage of information on people smugglers. The same individuals and networks from the 90s were involved in the later events as well. So why did we have to reinvent the wheel? Poor quality personnel. The… Read more »

Kevin Bain

What I was trying to do was to illustrate the banality of evil aspect R Manne referred to in the OP, as shown in the official language. In the midst of the exodus to the Andaman Sea in 2015 Abbott said “If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on boats this problem will get worse, not better.” As you say, no Abbott pushback against the Myanmar govt sent a signal. In contrast to this paranoia, former Aust ambassador to Myanmar Christopher Lamb said “the international community needed to work with authorities to understand why people are… Read more »

tasi timor

‘ too few commentators pay sufficient attention to Rudd’s leading role in ‘stopping the boats’ ‘ True. At the time Rudd made the promise that nobody who came by sea would be resettled in Australia, we were faced with two major cohorts of asylum seekers in Indonesia and in the pipelines ie Afghan Hazaras and Iranians. The latter were easily deterred and Rudd’s statement did so. They were mostly wealthy, transited via Dushanbe, didn’t want to wait long to get on a boat in Indonesia and often went for holidays to Bali while waiting. If they had to wait too… Read more »

Geoff Edwards

Prof Manne, you haven’t mentioned the malevolent influence of the Murdoch press, that has been fostering anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant populism for the entire period covered by your analysis. It would be possible to argue that this influence is only proximate (reflecting public opinion) rather than fundamental (like the other forces you identify), but I suggest that it is actually leading public opinion. The loss of rationality in public debate over this issue is alarming, as a harbinger of general acceptance of illogical and ideological positions of one tribe or another. We are seeing the same in climate policy and energy… Read more »

Kevin Bain

Talking of rationality, where is the intellectual input into policy? Is the Office of National Assessments involved? Is this a live experiment in path dependency, credible threats etc.? With no meddling Ethics Committees involved.

Geoff Edwards

Kevin, as you are obviously aware, many policy issues like refugees, climate, electricity and peak oil (if not all policy issues, by definition), require an understanding of systems dynamics, and an ability to trace cause and effect, precondition and consequence. The ability of the Australian public service to apply these skills seems to have been lost, through a range of converging influences, such as a combination of a narrow economic instrumentalism, budget cuts to middle management and assaults on the credibility of public service by the pro-business press. Without partisan-independent and respected analytical capacity, our national government will blunder around… Read more »

Kevin Bain

Geoff, I actually support intelligence assessments to govt via an ONA advisory role in this field though what can they show for it over the last 30 years. Whether Turnbull and Dutton listen to reason or are capable of implementing anything consistent and credible is doubtful. Surely ONA wouldn’t endorse Turnbull’s implicit message to Trump “we’re deferring the NZ offer so we can milk you first”, and Dutton’s implicit message that the ppl smugglers will come back from the dead AND it may overcome us. If Dutton thinks this, then he could justify continuing the cruelty of detention in order… Read more »

Geoff Edwards

The USA is rapidly pulling its society to pieces because there is no institution that the general public can trust. Not even their Supreme Court, not their electoral system. Australia has been importing conservative tribalism since the Howard years and the process of corrupting public institutions and undermining independent analytical capacity is now well advanced. If we can’t trust bodies like ONA to give frank and reliable advice based upon evidence and logic, then as a society we also are in serious trouble.

Kevin Bain

I know that the political terms of reference are imposed, but I suggest there is a professional responsibility of strategists to contest false understandings and narrow, shortterm perspectives. Does the ONA or other experts have the independence to “talk back” to policymakers and enlarge their thinking? I point to a speech given by the OSB boss Campbell to ASPI in May 2014 (not much else to go on as ONA and OSB give little away on their websites.) “Perhaps most importantly, the efforts of Border Protection Command have contributed to avoiding a significant number of deaths at sea that might… Read more »

tasi timor

‘Between 2002 and 2007, virtually no boats reached Australia.’ That was because we had done a deal with SBY who was Coordinating Minister for Political Legal and Security Affairs. During this period Polri’s POA [Polisi Orang Asing] were very actively intercepting those few seeking to get on boats. Howard poisoned his legacy by allowing the Papuans in. SBY and the Jakarta political elite in general considered it a people smuggling venture designed to attack RI’s territorial sovereignty. The most proactive and successful officers leading local POA units were immediately replaced. Coalition Ministers have often stated that allowing asylum seekers held… Read more »

Brian Toohey

A powerful exposition of the terrible cruelty absolutism generates

Andrew McRae

Thanks for republishing this great article with its postscript. Too few commentators pay sufficient attention to Rudd’s leading role in ‘stopping the boats’ – he defined the ends (entirely political, and nothing to do with ‘saving lives at sea’) and the LNP government devised various means which have led to the probably permanent damaging of so many lives. But perhaps too little is made also, including here (although Manne touches on it), of the ‘political football’ aspect, the major parties’ ‘race to the bottom’, as it were; the LNP ‘wedge’ and its apparent avoidance by Labor. I think the most… Read more »

Kevin Bain

There is a big political price we pay for this new version of Fortress Australia – less trust and cooperation from regional neighbours in problem-solving, since our comfort zone is at their expense, and resentment from those who make it to Australia at the harsh treatment of their fellows overseas, imprisoned or denied. The derogatory language and disregard for their plight by our leaders doesn’t help. All this promises trouble for the longterm. Turnbull’s nonsense about transfer to NZ is an incentive but US is not is laughable. Our island fortress and its illusion of control has licensed an inconsistent… Read more »