At present the chief priority of those concerned about the refugee situation in which Australia is directly implicated is to save the lives of the 1500 or so on Manus Island and Nauru and the 250 or so at present in Australia on medical grounds.
When this is achieved the next priority will be to struggle to provide the present “case-load” of around 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Australia with full citizen rights—to be treated as refugees brought to Australia have been treated—so they can live decent human lives.
What is peculiar about the nature of the political problem posed by Nauru and Manus Island?
Unlike most political problems, this one is time-sensitive. Already the people are, according to all evidence, close to breaking point. If a solution is delayed by even one year their condition will be unimaginably terrible.
Accordingly, those who believe we must do everything in our power to help them cannot afford the luxury of thinking in the long or even medium-term. We need to try to think of a way to alleviate their situation within the next few months, at worst.
What are the present prospects?
There are six possibilities.
The people can be left on Manus and Nauru in the current situation into the foreseeable future. No-one regards this as acceptable, not even the Turnbull Government.
The governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea can offer permanent settlement. This is simply, for obvious reasons, unworkable and grotesque.
The people can be offered large amounts of money to return to the countries from which they fled. Not only is it certain that in general this will not work. If pressure is applied, it would represent a form of refoulement by other means.
The people can be asked to accept settlement in a country unequipped to settle outsiders, like Cambodia. We already know that this fails.
The Australian government might succeed in finding a developed country—like the United States or Canada or a European country—willing to settle the people of Nauru and Manus. This seems to me highly unlikely but not impossible. If so, I would offer support. A comment I have heard from advocates that this “lets Australia off the hook” is unintentionally revealing. It seems to give priority to victory in the long struggle fought by advocates against the government rather than to the interest of the refugees. I believe the only thing that should count is the interest of the refugees.
The last option—the one everyone here I imagine supports—is to bring the refugees to Australia in the next few months.
The real political question is how this might be achieved.
Two strategies have been suggested.
Those in this room argue that a public political campaign led by advocates can convert the Government and the Opposition in the next few months to abandon its whole post-2012 border control policy.
This seems to me a fantasy. Public opinion has been steady on this issue, according to hundreds of opinion polls taken over the past twenty years. Two thirds or more of Australians have consistently been hostile to the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers who arrive by sea. Opinion since 2008 has probably hardened following the decision of the Rudd Government to abandon offshore processing and turn-back when 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers arrived by boat, more than 1,000 of whom drowned. Anti-Muslim sentiment has deepened this year. In addition, during the past twelve months more than a million refugees and asylum seekers have made their way from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, which has self-evidently had an effect on Australian opinion.
It is unrealistic in the extreme, in my view, to believe that in the next few months Australians will on balance opt to return to the situation that the Rudd Government adopted in 2008, that is to say that as a consequence of a political campaign, a bi-partisan position will emerge that accepts the reversal of Australia’s current border control policy regime.
Is there an alternative which might succeed? In collaboration with Tim Costello, Frank Brennan and John Menadue, I have been arguing that there is, although I want to make it clear that the chance of even our proposal being adopted by the Turnbull government is far less than 50%.
Our proposal is based on the idea that Australia could bring the people from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia without any realistic likelihood of a return of the post-2008 situation if Australia retained its present policy of naval interception and turn-back to point of departure.
The argument we have been putting has two parts. First, it is irrational to believe that people would be willing to spend several thousand dollars on a dangerous sea journey when the most likely outcome is return to the point of departure. Second, there is incontrovertible evidence that during the period of the Howard government the majority of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island were in fact brought to Australia without a return of the boats.
All of us need to realise that at present “Canberra”—by which I mean the two main political parties (the Coalition and Labor), the public servants in the Immigration Department, and the Defence and intelligence people concerned with border control—are in the grip of the condition known as ‘’group-think”. The central element is the belief that if even one action is taken to humanise the border control measures put in place after 2012—offshore processing, turn-back and Rudd’s addition (the pledge to never settle the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island in Australia)—then the situation will inevitably return to something similar to what occurred after 2008, with the 50,000 arrivals and the 1000 plus deaths at sea.
In my view the vital political task, to break this group think, has two parts.
The first task is to convince Canberra that what they are allowing to happen to the marooned on Nauru and Manus Island is unconscionable and will be remembered by future generations with shame. Those who are concerned about the situation of the refugees need to demonstrate to Canberra and the broader Australian public the nature of the extreme suffering which their country is now responsible for inflicting on 1750 innocent fellow human beings, who became our unconditional responsibility at the moment we despatched them to offshore processing camps.
The second task is to convince Canberra that refugees can be brought from Nauru and Manus to Australia without a return of the boats and the drownings. At present the argument between Canberra and the refugee advocates goes like this. Refugee advocates argue that the present situation is utterly reprehensible and inhumane. Canberra replies: if we did what you suggest we would have tens of thousands of asylum seekers on boats and hundreds of drownings. The argument might at this point however proceed like this. “You are quite wrong. If we kept the policy of naval interception and turn-back, the boats and the drownings, for the reasons we have articulated, would not return.” This additional argument is vital. What Canberra needs to be convinced of is that there is a practical way to bring the refugees to Australia in the next few months without the post 2008 situation being repeated.
Without formulating something along the lines of the second argument, the moral argument has no present prospect of success, in my view.
Let me conclude.
To their honour, the advocates have been primarily responsible for making Australians aware of the plight of the people on Nauru and Manus Island and the cruelty of the actions of their government. The refugee advocates should continue their Bring Them Here campaign. Without it what is morally at stake will not be made clear. Unfortunately, however, refugee advocates have not been able to discover any political strategy that has even the remotest prospect of political success in the short-term, which as I argued earlier is the only time-frame here that counts.
I believe the position the small group with whom I am associated has produced the only political solution so far that has any prospect of success. In addition to the moral argument, we need to continue to challenge the group-think in Canberra by putting persuasive arguments suggesting that if the people on Nauru and Manus are brought to Australia but the policy of naval interception and turn-back is retained, it is irrational to believe that the people smugglers will be back in business.
I do not believe that refugee advocates need to support the position that we have argued for. There is a case for what one might call a division of political tasks.
However just as I understand and respect the position of the advocates, I hope that they might understand and respect the one I have adopted. Which is why I have come here this evening to discuss it with you.
Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at Latrobe University.
The above was a talk given at a discussion on 3 October 2016 arranged by the Refugee Action Collective in Melbourne.