FRANK BRENNAN SJ. How to Stop the Boats Decently after the election

Jun 24, 2016


In her valedictory speech on 17 June 2013 after 20 years in parliament Judi Moylan reminded us:

If we are committed to stopping the deaths at sea, in this most intransigent of political arenas, our parliament must find a way to forge a national consensus before we can possibly entertain any hope of achieving a regional consensus.

There are presently 847 people in the Manus Island RPC and 466 persons in the Nauru RPC. There are 541 persons on Manus Island who have received a positive final determination that they are refugees. There are 915 persons on Nauru who are proven refugees, languishing on a Pacific Island with a permanent population of 10,000. Imagine if Australia were being asked to offer places to 2.4 million refugees in the next year. And make no mistake, that is the per capita equivalent to what we have visited upon Nauru with our chequebook.

Are not our military and intelligence services (in co-operation with Indonesian officials) sufficiently on the job that they can stop people smugglers in their tracks, stopping boats from being filled, stopping boats from setting out and turning back any that set out, regardless of whether proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island are resettled elsewhere (even ultimately in Australia)? The suggestion that those camps need to remain filled in order to send a message to people smugglers so that the boats will stay stopped is morally unacceptable. Those proven to be refugees should be resettled as quickly as practicable, and that includes taking up New Zealand’s offer of 150 places a year (just as John Howard did with the Tampa). Afterall, Angus Houston proposed a resurrected Pacific solution only as a temporary circuit breaker until the boats could be stopped and turned back lawfully and safely. His panel did not propose it as a permanent pre-condition for being able to stop boats and turn them back. The Houston Panel stated:

The Panel’s view is that, in the short term, the establishment of processing facilities in Nauru as soon as practical is a necessary circuit breaker to the current surge in irregular migration to Australia. It is also an important measure to diminish the prospect of further loss of life at sea. Over time, further development of such facilities in Nauru would need to take account of the ongoing flow of IMAs to Australia and progress towards the goal of an integrated regional framework for the processing of asylum claims.

Given that there has been no ‘ongoing flow of IMAs to Australia’, the only case for maintaining a processing facility on Nauru, in line with the Houston recommendations, would be as part of ‘an integrated regional framework for the processing of asylum claims’. And the Abbott and Turnbull governments have done NOTHING to effect that. Nauru and Manus Island no longer perform any credible, morally coherent, or useful task in securing Australia’s borders. Even talk of sending signals is misplaced. The main signal is being sent to Australian voters, not to asylum seekers waiting in Java whose attempts to commission people smugglers have been thwarted by Indonesian officials and Australian intelligence, and whose boats would be turned back in any event. Even if the Nauru and Manus Island facilities are maintained at Australian expense to deal with any short term emergency (and to continue to ‘send a message’ whatever that means), those processing centres should be emptied of those who have been waiting too long to get on with their lives. After the election, we must put aside the mantra of stopping the boats whatever it takes. Just as no one would seriously countenance cutting off the hands of asylum seekers because it would stop the boats, so now we should not seriously countenance holding proven refugees for years in the ‘completely untenable’ processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island because we think it helps to stop the boats. Government may have a mandate to stop the boats. But they have no mandate to do cruel and nasty things to people, denying them a dignified future, so as to stop the boats.

John Menadue has proposed:

After the election, our new Prime Minister should arrange an urgent meeting with the leaders of the three other major parties to negotiate a sensible and humanitarian response on asylum issues that have been avoided in the election campaign. At that meeting the new Prime Minister should make it clear that compromise will be required and that at least metaphorically, no-one should leave the meeting until there is an agreed response.

This way we could help our parliament do as Judi Moylan said and ‘forge a national consensus’ so that we might then achieve a regional consensus. This way, we might stop the boats decently. Over time, this approach could reduce the 14,000 caseload of asylum seekers waiting in Java. If the boats were stopped, Java would no longer be the magnet it has been for people coming into the region wanting to get to Australia. I would favour an increase to the humanitarian program of 27,000 a year, supplementing the government program of 20,000 places with an additional 7,000 places which could be sponsored by those of us who government count as misty-eyed. The 30,000 asylum seekers waiting to be processed in the Australian community could be given appropriate work and welfare rights. We could then commit to the hard diplomatic work of developing a truly regional response to population flows in the region.


(This is an extract from Frank Brennan’s Address to the All Saints Anglican Church in Canberra for Refugee Week 2016: ‘Towards Forging a National Consensus on Stopping the Boats Decently After the Election’)

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