FRANK BRENNAN SJ. Turnbull’s Policy Challenge Wrapped in Turnbull Cant

Nov 1, 2016


On Sunday morning, Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton held a joint press conference to announce new legislation in relation to the asylum seekers who have been held on Nauru and Manus Island now for over three years.

In this policy area, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and the prospect of a bipartisan approach on ‘means’ despite agreement on ‘ends’ has been slight since the Tampa affair in 2001.

First, I consider the legitimate policy objectives of the Turnbull Government.
Second, I consider the illegitimate, petty and amateur partisan politics in which these objectives continue to be wrapped, marketed and reported.

It’s time to get rid of the wrapping and achieve bipartisan commitment to the policy objectives.

The majority of the asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru are now proven refugees. Some of those on Nauru are children. They have now been held on these places for up to three years and three months.

In July and August 2013, Kevin Rudd finalised quite distinct MOUs with the governments of PNG and Nauru. PNG agreed to receive asylum seekers from Australia and if they were found to be refugees, PNG agreed to settle them permanently in PNG. To date, no refugees processed on Manus Island have been permanently and voluntarily settled in PNG. The PNG government is showing less interest by the day in providing such a resettlement option, particularly if the refugees are not happy campers – and they are all single adult men. Nauru with a population of only 10,000 agreed to host asylum seekers for processing. But once proved to be refugees, they were to be offered settlement in Nauru or in some third country with assistance being provided by Australia. Each year, Nauru and Australia were to agree on how many proven refugees would be permanently settled in Nauru and then Australia would assist in finding places for the residue of the caseload. To date, Nauru has not agreed to permanently settle even one proven refugee. So the entire caseload is still in Australia’s lap – and they include family groups and children.

After three years and three months, Turnbull needs to find a credible third country option for resettlement of the proven refugees. To date, the Abbott and Turnbull governments have not succeeded in resettling any significant number of the caseload. Some human rights and refugee advocates in Australia have been saying that Australia is the only possible country for resettlement. Theoretically that can’t be right. The longer these advocates say this, the more likely that proven refugees on Manus Island and Nauru will not accept voluntary resettlement in any third country with which Australia manages to negotiate a deal. So Turnbull needs a failsafe legal means which enjoys bipartisan support in Australia for ensuring that proven refugees on Manus Island and Nauru will not have an option of declining all other offers in the hope of being resettled in Australia. A law removing the possibility of permanent resettlement in Australia passed with Labor’s support would achieve this.

Second, Turnbull needs to be able to ensure that proven refugees resettled in a credible third country will not then have the option of applying to settle permanently in Australia. He needs this in order to send the message that anyone coming by boat from Indonesia and who is not in direct flight from persecution in Indonesia will not be able to be permanently resettled in Australia. This objective could also be achieved by legislation passed with Labor’s support.

But then comes the cheap and nasty politics. Turnbull wants to wedge Labor in the process and he wants to appeal to the One Nation base, first to ingratiate himself with them in the Senate and second to arrest the leakage of votes from the Coalition to One Nation. The wedging is clearest in Turnbull’s repeated quoting of Kevin Rudd on 19 July 2013: “As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.” The appeal to One Nation is clearest in the proposal not only to deny the prospect of settlement in Australia, but also to deny any possibility of these proven refugees even visiting Australia years hence, even if they be permanently, successfully and happily settled in another country. Of course, Turnbull might be using the old Ruddock trick of adding some nasties to a proposed bill simply so as to have something to negotiate away once the bill comes up in to the Senate. But on its face, it wreaks of nastiness for the sake of nastiness and One Nation support.

It was all there in Turnbull’s answers to questions on Sunday morning:


Prime Minister you said that this policy reflects a long-standing commitment to not allow asylum seekers or refugees to settle here permanently. But this is about doing something totally different. It is saying to genuine refugees they can never take a holiday here and they can never get a business visa here. Why is that necessary and how is that fair?


You need to clearest of clear messages. This is a battle of will between the Australian people, represented by its government and these criminal gangs of people smugglers. You should not underestimate the scale of the threat. These people smugglers are the worst criminals imaginable. They have a multibillion-dollar business. It is a battle of will. We have to be very determined to say no to their criminal plans.


But do you concede that’s a totally different issue to the idea of settling here permanently. To say that you can’t get a tourist visa, you can’t get a business visa. It’s a totally different issue.


It’s a very clear unequivocal message and that is what the situation requires. 

If only Turnbull and Shorten would agree on means as well as ends. They could do this if Turnbull were to restrict himself to legislation precluding permanent resettlement in Australia for those who travel to Australia without a visa, not in direct flight from persecution in Indonesia, and who can be resettled elsewhere. If Turnbull were to downplay the Rudd mantra of July 2013, Shorten would have less grounds for highlighting the three-year failure of Abbott and Turnbull to negotiate appropriate burden sharing with Nauru these last three years under the MOU. Turnbull and Shorten should then agree to a timeframe once the legislation is in place. I suggest resettlement in a third country within three months of the legislation’s passage or failing that, resettlement in Australia without any political point scoring. Let’s remember we are talking about a caseload which includes kids who are proven refugees whom we have punished mercilessly without hope for up to three years and three months. It’s time to stop the clock. And if the ban were simply on permanent settlement, rather than visiting, Turnbull could immediately accept New Zealand’s offer of 150 places a year, just as John Howard did at the time of Tampa. But I suppose that depends on what Pauline thinks. And please spare us the cant of sending a clear message to people smugglers. If the Javanese people smugglers can’t sell permanent settlement in Australia, they are not going to be offering a discounted service for settlement in an undisclosed third country with one-off visiting rights to Australia years down the track.

Frank Brennan’s interview with Bill Crews on 2GB can be heard at


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