Ending the policy paralysis on refugees. John Menadue

Jul 9, 2013

In my blog of July 6, ‘Asylum seekers … good news at last’, I expressed concern that it had taken so long for the government to take action and really put effort into the development of a regional framework. It has been obvious for years that this was the path we had to take. We cannot solve this problem unilaterally. As a result our public discourse got diverted into a whole range of divisive and secondary issues.

There are several reasons why the government failed so badly in driving a regional framework.

  • It was spooked by Tony Abbott’s willful exaggeration and fomenting of fear in a way that I have not seen in public life for a long time.
  • Ministers and departments were so continually in crisis mode over boat arrivals that they lost sight of the key long-term strategic issue that needed to be addressed-regional cooperation
  • Under the rubric of small government, the policy expertise of many departments has been eroded. A great deal of policy work is now passed to organizations such as the Productivity Commission or contracted out to consultants, universities and accounting firms that don’t have much policy expertise or institutional  memory.
  • The policy void in government departments has been filled by political and inexperienced officers in ministerial offices who are driven by the 24/7 news cycle. Policy continuity and expertise is something they know very little about.

In the refugee field, Arja Keski-Nummi and I highlighted this major gap or paralysis on refugee discussion in our submission to the Expert Panel.

The inter-governmental and multilateral dialogue on displacement and people smuggling has grown over recent years. The Bali Process has had a positive impact on this.  But a great deal remains to be done on regional cooperation following the agreement between President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Rudd.

Unfortunately little attention is given to engaging with civil society in Australia (including NGOs) and yet in many ways such engagement holds one of the keys to supporting the development of a stronger refugee protection framework.

It is both timely and important to start the process of developing a framework that engages civil society as an important partner in the process. ASEAN has led the way in such engagement with the model it uses for the development of the ASEAN Human Rights Instrument.

A successful model has been used in the security dialogue in Australia. It has adopted the concept of a “Track 2” approach. This involves both government and non-government players as equal partners, recognising the complementary strengths that each brings to the table.

While building such a dialogue takes enormous effort and commitment the dividends can be many:

  • it can remove from public contention to a neutral space the discussion on  refugees, asylum seekers, people  smuggling and displacement,
  • it gives all players a stake in the partnership and responsibilities in addressing the issues,
  • it promotes a rational public discourse with facts and reason

As a first step a local track 2 dialogue on refugees could be initiated in Australia bringing together the key experts from government, the region, international agencies and civil society to map out approaches and strategies for the future. This dialogue would be funded by the Government but would not be part of Government.  The Minister should appoint the chair.

The modest government funding for this should be provided as a matter of urgency and could be channeled through a university as is done for the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) in the security dialogue or through an agency such as UNHCR or IOM that have strong  records in this type of work.

This dialogue should be expanded into a regional approach sitting alongside or under the Bali Process.

We need a much wider and better-informed dialogue on refugee issues than we have had in recent years. Because of the lack of an informed and robust discussion on refugee issues the government should not be surprised that it has made so many mistakes in this field. It badly needs to listen to a much wider range of informed advice. A ‘track two dialogue’ would be a great help.




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