Feb 15, 2019

It’s time to stop the shrillness.  The boats have stopped.  Both sides of politics are now committed to turnbacks.  Both Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten will do whatever it takes to stop asylum seekers setting sail from Indonesia.  If asylum seekers do set sail, they will be returned.  

The website for the Australian Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders states: ‘In the five years since the Australian Government established Operation Sovereign Borders, we have successfully stopped the boats and suppressed the people smuggling threat to Australia.  Australian authorities have not only intercepted 33 vessels, returning 827 people to their point of departure but we have worked with our regional partners to disrupt over 70 people smuggling ventures before they left.’ 

During that time, many proven refugees and asylum seekers whose claims are not yet determined and who have been warehoused on Manus Island and Nauru for more than five years have been transferred to Australia for medical treatment.  Those in need of medical treatment not available in Nauru or on Manus Island have been routinely moved to Australia together with their families.  Back in May 2018, 460 persons had been moved to Australia.  By last week the number had reached 879.  But this has not triggered any new armada of boats. 

The military, police and diplomatic arrangements between Australia and Indonesia have been sufficiently robust to dissuade asylum seekers in Indonesia from attempting to set sail for Australia and to turn back those who have made the attempt.  Meanwhile 456 proven refugees on Nauru and Manus Island have been resettled in the USA.  Not even this initiative and the promise to resettle another 800 has resulted in asylum seekers being able to reach Australia from Indonesia by boat.  Attempts have been very rare, and none has succeeded.  The last three turnbacks were in December 2017, June 2018, and September 2018.

After five years, there are still about a thousand refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.  In recent times, the Turnbull and Morrison governments have declined New Zealand offers of assistance to take up to 150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru each year.  That was a mistake. They could have accepted the offer while keeping the boats stopped.  Meanwhile there has been a series of Australian court cases establishing that the Australian authorities have at times not been sufficiently responsive to the acute medical needs of persons whose lives have been put on hold for over five years.  The majority of our parliamentarians have now legislated to ensure a more transparent, rational process for medical referrals and transfers to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island, while insisting that the boats remain stopped or turned back.

This has led to Prime Minister Morrison’s claim that the Labor Party and the Independents have weakened Australia’s border protection regime.  They’ve not weakened it.  They’ve simply rendered more humane the treatment of sick asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island while maintaining a robust border protection regime with Indonesia.  

Not even Mr Morrison would suggest that stopping the boats from Indonesia requires inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in the Pacific.  But yesterday, Scott Morrison told Parliament in response to a Dorothy Dixer from Barnaby Joyce (edited by Morrison at the despatch box and then delivered by hand to Joyce by Christopher Pyne, the manager of government business): ‘There is an eerie ring to what we are hearing. The Leader of the Labor Party stood here last night and he talked about getting the balance right on border protection. I remembered that phrase very clearly because there was another Leader of the Labor Party who said just that. It was Kevin Rudd. He said: “Our policy is clear-cut. It’s balanced … we’ve got that balance right.” It’s a balance that led to 800 boats, 50,000 arrivals, 1,200 people dead at sea, all on the heads of those who sit opposite, all on their heads—on your head, your head, your head and your head!’  But the Rudd-led Labor Party never agreed to turnbacks. There is now not a sliver of light between Labor and the Coalition on turnbacks.  That being the case, both sides could afford to be humane to sick people who have languished on Nauru and Manus Island for over five years, while keeping the boats stopped.

All that’s needed is to make sure that any turnbacks are safe, legal and transparent. You can keep boats stopped while treating sick people appropriately.  It’s time to tone down the rhetoric which might have people smugglers thinking something has changed when it has not.  The boats are stopped and will be turned back if they try.

Frank Brennan is CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia

Tim Costello is Chief Advocate for World Vision

Robert Manne is an Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University

John Menadue is a former Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Immigration. 

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