ROBERT MANNE. An urgently needed compromise

In recent weeks I have been involved in an extended argument on the Monthly’s website over the fate of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island whose lives all participants in the discussion agree are being slowly destroyed as a result of Australian policy over the past four years. 

In the first move I sketched out and updated the position that Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, John Menadue and I have been arguing since last August.

In brief, our case can be summarised like this. We have argued that it is not feasible that any Australian government formed in the next few years will return to the policy position adopted by the Rudd government in 2008: the abandonment of both offshore processing and the turn-back of asylum seekers to their point of departure after naval interception. The reason is clear. As a result of the Rudd policy between 2009 and 2013, 50,000 asylum seekers reached Christmas Island from Indonesia on 800 boats, while more than 1000 drowned. No Australian government in the foreseeable future will risk the recurrence of a situation like this.

We have argued, however, that if the turn-back policy is retained, the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island not accepted by the US under the Obama–Turnbull deal can be settled in Australia without the reappearance of significant numbers of asylum-seeker boats. Both historical experience and common sense show why. During the late Howard years, more than half the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island were settled here. Because the policy of turn-back was retained, virtually no asylum-seeker boats set out from Indonesia. Manifestly, there seems to be almost no one foolish enough to spend thousands of dollars on a journey that is guaranteed to end either in death by drowning or return to point of departure.

Professor Klaus Neumann responded to our argument on his blog. His post was republished on the Monthly’s website. In rejecting our proposal, he argued in some detail that we had shown ourselves indifferent to questions of justice and uninterested in international refugee law and the global refugee crisis.

In response, I asked Neumann a straightforward question: Having rejected our proposal but believing like us that the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island not settled in the United States should be brought to Australia, what alternative policy proposal could he suggest that might, on the one hand, save the lives of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island and, on the other, have a realistic chance of being adopted by a Labor government if one were to be elected in the near future?

Last week, Neumann and four colleagues provided a refreshingly honest answer to my question. They argued that as there was no chance that the proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island not accepted by the US would be settled in Australia by the next Labor government, there was simply no point in trying to fashion a “short-term” policy to save their lives. What refugee advocates should work on was a new refugee policy for the “medium term”, which they then proceeded to outline.

As readers might think I am distorting what they argued, let me quote their words. “[I]t is imperative to work for a medium term solution because a sustainable and just short-term solution is all but impossible.” Or again, “[t]here is no sound realistic policy option in the short term …” Or yet again, “there is no sustainable short-term solution that would address our concerns about legality and justice at the same time as being politically palatable …”

The implication of these words – denying the possibility of any short-term solution to the tragedy of the people of Nauru and Manus Island – go deep. Almost by definition, whether or not the lives of the people on Nauru and Manus Island not accepted by the US are to be saved is a short-term question. If they are left to rot, without hope, for even the next two or three or five years, the lives of almost all these people will be shattered.

There are two additional points to be made about the response of Neumann et al.

First, it seems to me extraordinarily dogmatic to suggest that the idea we have proposed – settlement of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island in Australia coupled with the retention of turn-back – has no chance of being accepted by a future Labor government. After all, the decidedly refugee-unfriendly Howard government adopted a similar policy between 2004 and 2007. For such an idea to be accepted, however, the case for it will need to be made, time and time again. If refugee advocates do not support the idea, or even more if they oppose it, the chance of a new Labor government bringing the people on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia is very significantly reduced.

Which leads to my second point. Neumann et al have indeed made it clear that if the next Labor government were to adopt such a policy they would be opposed to it on both moral and legal grounds. As there is, they concede, no other policy proposal that has any chance of saving the lives of those presently on Manus Island and Nauru not settled in the US, Neumann et al have no strategy that might offer the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island any grounds for hope. Rather than Neumann et al accepting our compromise proposal, or suggesting something else that has any chance of being adopted by a future Labor government, the real-world logic of the position they have sketched out – which is supported strongly by a policy brief released on 2 May by the pre-eminent refugee think tank in Australia, the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales – is that hundreds of the people now on Nauru and Manus Island simply cannot be saved.

In my view, precisely because of their honesty, Neumann et al take us to the hollowness at the heart of the position that supporters of the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island have now reached.

The supporters are campaigning under the slogan “Bring Them Here”. Whatever their differences, what almost all the refugee supporters demand is both the closure of the offshore processing centres and the abandonment of the policy of turn-back. If they are honest, like Neumann et al, they must know that there is no possibility that any Australian government that is likely to be formed in the near future will risk a return to the situation of 2009–13 by both emptying the offshore processing centres and abandoning the policy of turn-back. The most to hope for from any Australian government in the foreseeable future is the settlement of all those presently on Nauru and Manus Island and the establishment of a safe, transparent and legal policy of turn-back.

In arguing therefore for something they know to be unachievable over the next few years, and in resisting the only realistic alternative short-term policy so far suggested – the only time span that in the context matters – refugee supporters in Australia have effectively, if unintentionally, abandoned to their fate those many hundreds of people presently marooned on Nauru and Manus Island who will be rejected over the next months for settlement in the US.

The compromise solution that Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, John Menadue and I have suggested is self-evidently uncomfortable for us as much as it is for other refugee supporters in Australia. But as it, or something like it, is the only politically realistic policy proposal with any prospect of success, my hope is that the people who genuinely care about the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island will eventually, on reflection, recognise that they have no alternative policy to suggest, and that, in the absence of any alternative proposals, they will find the courage and intellectual honesty to change their minds and to offer our proposal their support.

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University

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4 Responses to ROBERT MANNE. An urgently needed compromise

  1. Tony Kevin says:

    I find curious Robert Manne’s , or his group’s, loss of historical memory here. According to his account, a small group – Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, John Menadue, and himself – independently came to these compromise views a year ago, around August 2016, and have ever since then found themselves in conflict with refugee advocacy purists as represented by Klaus Neumann. On the substance as argued by Manne here, I am entirely in agreement with him and his colleagues.

    However, as at least Frank Brennan would know, almost identical arguments were being put forward vigorously in the runup to the last ALP conference in Melbourne in July 2015, by Frank Brennan, Brad Chilcott and me. Each of us was arguing passionately to the refugee advocacy movement within the Labor Party that it should urge Shorten and Marles , then Labor’s refugee spokesman, to a compromise much as Manne proposes here, where Labor would support the obviously successful Operation Sovereign Borders turnback system and focus its advocacy on closing the two offshore camps as a humanitarian legacy issue, responsibility for which is shared by all past Australian governments .

    For our pains, Chilcott and I were roundly abused by serried ranks of refugee activists as traitors to the cause. I found many of my Facebook friendships and groups blocked. I found that whatever credit I might have thought I had earned from my two books on refugee lives lost at sea as a result of Australian maritime rescue negligence or deliberate delay , quickly evaporated. People preferred to stand outside the tent of the Labor Conference shouting for the politically unattainable ( as Neumann does here , by Manne’s account) than try seriously to improve the Labor platform then under review at the conference, on these questions of life and death for the detainees in Manus and Nauru, whose conditions have only worsened since July 2013. I found this experience so personally distressing that thereafter I stood back from boat people activism – having found that most of those I thought shared my humanitarian priorities were in fact coming from somewhere else, a place to which I did not wish to follow them. Essentially, they were putting abstract principles ahead of real , at-risk , human lives. Obviously, such people continue to dominate policy in refugee activist circles.

    I wish Brennan, Costello, Manne and Menadue luck with this. Brennan, Chilcott and I tried to do the same thing in July 2015, and it broke our hearts.

  2. TCM says:

    Greetings from Kabul, Afghanistan.

    While it’s interesting to observe the fine intricacies of disagreement among Australia’s intellectuals/chattering class on matters of policy, it is somewhat more helpful to talk to individuals and families who are directly affected by forced displacement, and to bring their voices into public discourse, alongside the views of (non-partisan) people who dedicate the bulk of their time to providing asylum seekers and refugees with personal assistance, counselling, practical support and advocacy – whether as paid professionals or as volunteers.

    For those of us involved in a humanitarian response in countries affected by conflict, a core protection principle is that of participation, i.e. involving the displaced as well as host communities in decision-making. Regrettably, it is rare that the people most affected by policy decisions of the Australian government are heard, respected, and invited to participate in debates about matters of asylum. If it’s to have any value at all, this debate should include the views of asylum-seekers and refugees (including those in Indonesia and Malaysia), IDPs and others who remain in their country of origin facing acute protection risks, and the Papuan and Nauruan communities (and no, I don’t mean government spokespeople and contractors whose salaries depend in part on Australian government coffers).

    Another key humanitarian principle of relevance here – neutrality. Why the assumption that Australians must (and will) choose between traditional “major” parties – look no further than the USA and France – and to use this “realpolitik” footing as a basis for compromising policy recommendations? Good policy is good policy, on its merits, not the policy most likely to win favour in an ALP party room meeting, or with any other political party.

    Contemplating the consequences of policy, intended or otherwise, is also instructive – not least, the hypocrisy of Australian Government and European countries in denying the right to asylum and turning their backs on refugees. By way of example – why would Pakistan and Iran continue to host millions of displaced Afghans, when much wealthier States such as Australia cringe at the arrival of some 50,000 from various countries of origin (in a 4-year period)? Is it any surprise that almost 1 million Afghans have been deported or effectively pushed to return to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran in the past 12 months, not long after European States adopted positions which seem so eerily familiar to a displaced Australian working abroad?

    What Australia needs, and what asylum-seekers, refugees, and host communities in neighbouring countries need even more, is leadership, honesty, and courage from Capital Hill and a demand from the Australian community for their representatives to respect international law.

  3. Peter Mansour-Nahra says:

    Ever since political leaders from Howard onward have demonised asylum seekers, the selfish streak in us Australians has been given validity. People who would not leave a hungry person standing at their door, find it easy enough to dismiss asylum seekers as illegals, queue jumpers, negatively stereotyped, with no recognition of the humanity of each individual. Some of my otherwise most generous friends still fall into that category. I share the dismay of the 2 comments above, and of Manne and his group. It will take a gutsy political leader to bite the bullet – then hopefully our emotionally numbed population might just find their feelings again.

  4. Henry Haszler says:

    I do like the Manne et al interim solution because:
    1. It gets us to a resolution that is humane in the short run;
    2. I should be politically acceptable to BOTH the major parties — that is IF the refugee advocates stop quarreling among themselves;
    3. I gives us time to go for what is the long run solution which is based around helping people in their countries of origin or their countries of first flight and helps us go to a regional processing solution.

    Because Australia — through that war criminal John Howard — was so much responsible for the political and humanitarian mess that is the Middle East I think we in Australia have a more than average responsibility to pony up and help fix this and meet our commitments under international law.

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