FRANK BRENNAN. The invidious choice for refugee advocates

Robert Manne’s latest piece on the future policy options for refugees on Nauru and Manus Island is now available here. The moral-political question is about the choice confronting those of us advocating a change of policy by the major political parties.

Those like Robert Manne, John Menadue, Tim Costello and myself have been arguing that there are four achievable goals, most probably via the ALP shortly after its election were it to win the next election. But even with the Coalition there could be some movement by October when PNG wants ‘out’ and when Broadspectrum and Wilson Security finish their contracts. Broadspectrum (which used by Transfield) now has new corporate masters, the Spanish company Ferrovial. Ferrovial does not want a bar of any contracts profiting by the provision of services to offshore immigration detention centres in the Pacific. Any new service providers will be very inexperienced and expensive, providing government with future headaches. It’s only a matter of time before something goes badly wrong on Nauru or Manus Island.

We think the four achievable goals are: closing the Nauru and Manus Island facilities, resettling all proven refugees in the USA or Australia; providing permanent residence to those of the 30,000 caseload in Australia who are proven to be refugees; ensuring that all boat turnbacks to Indonesia are safe, legal and transparent; and investing more in diplomacy aimed at a building a co-operative regional approach to people flows.

We think the only prospect of convincing the Coalition or the ALP to adopt these goals would be with acceptance that the boats from Indonesia will remain stopped, and that government is entitled to negotiate arrangements with the Indonesian authorities to ensure the boats remain stopped. Should an asylum seeker be seeking entry to Australia having come directly from Indonesia where their life or freedom was threatened, no return to Indonesia would be warranted unless there had first been an assessment of their refugee status and of their potential situation on return.

Other refugee advocates think we have been either unprincipled or incorrect in our political assessments. They maintain the goal of having a future Australian government accept that asylum seekers transiting Indonesia should be permitted entry to Australia with the assurance of permanent resettlement should they then be proved to be refugees. Those advocates may be right. But then again, they might be wrong. In any case, their approach places no added pressure on the major political parties. Their approach would yield fruit only if the Greens were in government, also enjoying control of the Senate. While government in Australia is constituted by Labor or the Coalition, we think proven refugees (including children) will continue to languish on Nauru and Manus Island, and the 30,000 residual caseload in Australia will continue to have their lives placed on hold unless one of the major parties can be convinced to break the bipartisan commitment both to stopping boats AND to meting out punitive treatment on those who reached Australia in the past. Thus the need for respectful informed discussion amongst refugee advocates. We need to break the logjam, rather than breaking these people on a point of principle. We need to yield on the bipartisan commitment to stopping the boats while insisting that any major political party deserving our votes would be committed to ending the unnecessary punitive treatment of those who succeeded in running the gauntlet, assured that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to run that gauntlet in future.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia. These are his personal views, shared with Robert Manne, John Menadue and Tim Costello


Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia and the Rector of Newman.

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4 Responses to FRANK BRENNAN. The invidious choice for refugee advocates

  1. Avatar Kevin Bain says:

    I agree with Father Brennan on the 4 achievable and 1 unachievable (no turnbacks) goals because the strong intolerance of boat arrivals by a significant number of Australians is an unavoidable boulder in the road which advocates must manoeuvre around. The hardnuts are not open to change in the short term. But what response follows from that is less obvious.

    The suggestion that “the only prospect of convincing the Coalition or the ALP to adopt these goals would be with acceptance“ by the advocates is yet to be explained as to the form of the concession, what the political class gets or thinks they get from it, and whether it helps or hinders Australians seeing the refugees as human beings deserving of respect. For the same reason, a risk assessment is needed on the external (to Australia) effects on asylum-seeking behaviour and policies of other states.

    I thought the Refugee Council response to the Budget was professional advocacy: they welcomed some aspects and criticised others, saying why and suggesting changes. In representing their sector (100 orgs?) to govt, I don’t see what is gained or lost by them biting their tongues on the consequences of turnbacks (which decisionmakers need reminding about) while still pushing their views on the 4 achievable aims.
    The leader of another wellknown advocacy org told me recently that MPs often say “can’t you stop these people standing outside my office?” to which the reply was “when you stop doing things which are intolerable, we will stop it.” Selfevidently, this is the right response.

    While we want specific actions, if we are adopt the political calculus of horsetrading which sacrifices the interests of some people (those turned back) for the greater good of the detainees’ freedom, we’ve lost the moral compass, so better get a strong blueprint and call on public pressure. Or does Fr Brennan and colleagues see the process differently?

    Regarding the chance of positive change around October, Dutton has foreshadowed compulsory removals around then so we can expect a lot of social conflict, especially about the extent to which the Minister has browbeaten the AAT members making their refugee determinations because a lot of his decisions have been set aside. Prof Maley has pointed out that the acceptance rate for existing Afghani refugee applications fell by half after April 2010 when the Australian ministers for foreign affairs, immigration and citizenship, and home affairs claimed improvements there and suspended new applications. In the following year when the pressure was off, rates went back to the previous level ie. increased by 100%. After his recent comments about “fake refugees” and an almost total turnover in statutory officeholders in the RSD area, an independent process must be in doubt. How should advocates who support a proper RSD process respond when the crunch comes with deportations?

  2. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    Thanks Frank. I am sure you and I agree that we can be all become more effective on asylum seeker protection when we work together in mutually respectful ways. Pragmatic ameliorators like all of us referenced here – you four now , and Brad Chilcott and you and I a year previously in the run-up to and during the 2013 Labor Party Conference, and ideological purists for whom the good is the enemy of the best, should not abuse one another. Best, Tony Kevin

  3. Avatar Frank Brennan says:

    Thanks Tony, and I happily acknowledge that a few of us were putting these sorts of arguments prior to the last ALP conference, and before Robert, John, Tim and I teamed up more formally on it in mid-2016.

  4. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    I fully agree with Frank and colleagues here. They have posed an important moral challenge to the refugee advocacy community:

    “Thus the need for respectful informed discussion amongst refugee advocates. We need to break the logjam, rather than breaking these people [the offshore detainees and people in limbo in Australia] on a point of principle.”

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