FRANK BRENNAN. Australia and the refugees who come by boat

Jul 9, 2019

We have now all endured our third election in a row when boat turnbacks and the punitive treatment of refugees and asylum seekers featured.  The overwhelming majority of our politicians and the overwhelming majority of voters are agreed that the boats from Indonesia carrying asylum seekers transiting Indonesia should be stopped, and the refugees and asylum seekers who have been languishing on Nauru and Manus Island should be treated decently and humanely.

The disagreement is over whether after six years of aimless waiting and esuspension, all those who are sick can be given appropriate medical attention either on site or in Australia.  A recent swathe of court cases demonstrates that when the decision whether to conduct a medical evacuation is left to Mr Dutton’s public servants, the decision cannot always be classed as decent and humane.  A narrow majority of our politicians thought it was time to insist that such medical decisions always be decent and humane.  They remain insistent that the boats remain stopped, with turnbacks in place.

In February 2019 when Jacinta Collins, the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate, announced her retirement from parliament, she made a telling observation: ‘I regret that officials did not alert Labor when we were in government that boat interceptions or turnbacks could safely occur. Much of what followed might not have subsequently occurred.’

At the 2013 election, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott had been equally committed to stopping the boats.  While Abbott placed great store on turnbacks, Rudd thought the same result could be achieved only by other means, including the revival of the Pacific Solution but with the added proviso that no one would ever be permitted to resettle in Australia.  He negotiated deals with PNG and Nauru and announced that no asylum seeker taken to those places would ever be permitted to settle in Australia.  Prime Minister Rudd, presumably with comprehensive security and military briefings, thought that the conditions for legal turnbacks could not be fulfilled.  Abbott, without the benefit of the regular briefings available only to government, was able to wing it and promise turnbacks.

On his election as prime minister, Abbott instituted Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) and within two months, turnbacks were a centerpiece of OSB.  Many of us were troubled by the secrecy of the turnback arrangements because the previous year the expert panel chaired by the respected ex-head of the military Angus Houston had reported ‘that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met’. So what had changed?

Up until the 2015 ALP national conference, Abbott and his minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison taunted Labor for its failure to embrace turnbacks.  For example, on 28 May 2014, Morrison told Parliament: ‘We need to stay the course on border protection and those opposite would change it all because they oppose the successful border protection policies of this government. They will turn back on turnbacks, you can be sure of that. This government will not be turning on turnbacks, you can be assured.’  Three months later, he was still at it: ‘On turnbacks, we implemented the turnback policy which they said could never work and could never be done. When they see the results of that policy staring them in the face, they cannot support it now. The people of Australia know that, if they cannot support turnbacks now after the results they have seen, they will never support them, and they can never be trusted to put them in place.’  At that time, there was no publicly available evidence that the turnbacks were lawful and safe.  We were being asked to trust a non-transparent government.

For almost three years, Labor has been adamant that there is not a sliver of light between them and the government on turnbacks and stopping the boats.  In the lead up to the last election, Tony Burke, the Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast, ‘There remains a bipartisan turnback policy that I would be surprised, deeply surprised, if the government decided to not implement it…The real shift was when a way was found to be able to conduct turnbacks again.  Once that happened, it was bipartisan to support that and that means that if someone puts their lives at risk on the high seas, they are turned back and sent back to Jakarta.’

There are still more than 800 refugees and asylum seekers remaining on Nauru and Manus Island.  And there are that many who have come from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia to receive medical treatment.  Those who have been screened out and found not to be refugees need to accept that the re-elected Morrison government will not allow them to settle permanently in Australia.  Those from Iran who have been found not to be refugees cannot be returned home by force.  They need to choose to return home.  Those who have been found to be refugees should be resettled promptly either in the USA or in New Zealand.  There are no other practical options.  Australia should stop pressuring Nauru and New Zealand from agreeing to the regular transfer of 150 refugees per annum.  For too long, the Australian government has tried to have it both ways.  Only last week, Minister Dutton informed the Australian Parliament: ‘In general, the Government’s position is that Australia does not exercise the degree of control necessary in regional processing countries to enliven Australia’s international obligations.’  So what right does Australia have to exercise that degree of control necessary to stop the transfer of refugees from those regional processing countries to a country where a decent durable solution might be provided?  If Nauru and New Zealand or PNG and New Zealand are minded to reach agreement on putting to an end a humanitarian disaster, what business is that of Australia, just because Australian caused the disaster in the first place?  Should any of those proven to be refugees not be acceptable to the USA or New Zealand then they should be resettled in Australia promptly provided only that they do not constitute a security risk in Australia.

It’s a brave commentator who suggests what makes moral, political and economic good sense to the Morrison government on these issues.  Afterall they were prepared to waste over $180 million dollars prior to the recent election re-opening the Christmas Island processing facility with no one to be processed.  And it would seem that this form of economic waste and bad policy passes muster with the electorate when it would not if the money were wasted so profligately on other government non-services designed only for mandate signalling. But let me have a go.

Any government, including the re-elected Morrison government, should see the good sense in providing employment, health and welfare services for bona fide asylum seekers living in the Australian community, having adequately resourced the non-military, non-Customs part of the Department of Home Affairs to process promptly those on our shores who are applying for protection visas simply so as to extend their time in Australia on a visitor’s visa.  Any government, including the re-elected Morrison government, should see the good sense in allowing proven refugees on temporary protection visas to transition to a permanent visa after (say) six years.  Any government, including the re-elected Morrison government, should see the good sense in resolving the caseload of refugees and asylum seekers languishing on Nauru and Manus Island after six years and three elections, while keeping the boats stopped, turning back those who are not fleeing persecution IN Indonesia and conducting on-deck assessments at sea of those travelling from countries like Vietnam and Sri Lanka which are not presently significant refugee producing countries.  Any government, including the re-elected Morrison government, should appreciate that the Australian Senate will not vote for legislation which would force children who are proven refugees brought to Australia for family medical care (including psychiatric help) to be removed back to Nauru to languish in ongoing existential despair after six years of waiting, and in the spurious name of sending a signal to people smugglers.  Those refugee children and their families will have to be allowed to remain in Australia unless a ready removal to the USA or New Zealand can be arranged. After six years, the time might even come when the party room of the Liberal Party will say that this is more than enough cruelty, regardless of the political advantage in providing an ongoing ready point of differentiation from the Labor Party.  Failed asylum seekers whose refugee claims have been refused in Nauru or PNG should abandon hope that the re-elected Morrison government will allow them to settle in Australia.

Let’s all commit to options with some hope of winning acceptance by those who expect to occupy the treasury benches and let’s not hold out false hopes to those who continue to languish in Nauru and Manus Island.

This was part of Frank Brennan’s presentation on 8 July 2019 at LaTrobe University’s ‘Ideas & Society Program’ discussion on ‘Australia and the refugees who come by boat’ with Julian Burnside, Behrouz Boochani, and Madelaine Chiam.



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