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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18 Responses to FRANK BRENNAN, TIM COSTELLO, ROBERT MANNE, JOHN MENADUE. Boat Turnbacks and Medical Transfers.

  1. tasi timor says:

    ‘The boats have stopped. Both sides of politics are now committed to turnbacks… If asylum seekers do set sail, they will be returned.’

    Such shrill certainty is usually associated with the Bible Belt not International Relations where interests, personnel and scenarios are always in flux.

    In recent days the media have interviewed several Indonesians about people smuggling. The media have obviously been directed to them. None are credible. Here is just one example –

    Last Friday’s edition of The Australian contained an interview with Ardani, allegedly a fisherman from Pepela. Ardani is a stooge for Jakarta and a virulent anti Australian. He was one of the small group of apex fleet owners in Pepela who enforced debt slavery. He works in tandem with another professional anti Australian currently attempting to extort money using the Montara spill as a pretext. He tells The Australian that there are no smugglers and agents currently moving among the fishermen in Pepela. This is meaningless because they don’t have to. Pepela provides smuggling crews for boats departing for Australia right across Indonesia. Smugglers in Java and Sulawesi use Blackberry and WhatsApp to call a family member in Pepela, they no longer travel there physically. Skippers and crews then travel to Kupang by sea, then fly or travel by ferry to Java and Sulawesi.

    Ardani works with a professional conman [convicted and jailed in Alor for fraud in 1999] who used to be an Australian Immigration agent, FT. FT lost his position after Indonesian women complained he was allegedly extorting sex for visas. When he didn’t get the position as Hon.Consul he began a campaign of terror against Hon.Consul Don Van Cooten, forcing Don and his wife to flee Indonesia. Ardani and his political partners agitate against Australian sovereignty over Ashmore, using propaganda of the vilest kind manufactured and sent to the local press. They subsequently jumped on the Montara spill bandwagon, falsely claiming that local seaweed farmers had been affected. On one occasion, they invited an Australian journalist to Tablolong in West Timor to falsely allege that local seaweed farming had been destroyed by Montara, while facilitating a people smuggling boat which departed Tablolong while the journalist was present, and probably unaware. A former Kepala Desa [Village Head] of Tablolong is part of their group. In this way they hope to extort money from Australia by manufacturing a threat then linking it to poverty.

    That said, Ardani’s anti Australianism isn’t without cause. As former DFAT officers reading this blog will know, we conducted a policy, at times implemented brutally, against Pepela fishermen who fished in and around the Ashmore MOU box. The result was to impoverish fishing families, but not the fleet owners, in Pepela. Boat confiscations and burnings resulted in mounting debt, and debt slavery of the kind enforced by Ardani and his fellow owners. Fishermen so badly treated turned to people smuggling, starting in 1987. Rote crews subsequently became the backbone of the entire smuggling enterprise across Indonesia. DFAT was warned decades ago that if we persisted then such a scenario was a probable outcome.

  2. Harold Zwier says:

    The national interest of Australia is not served by a resumption of asylum seeker boat arrivals to Australia. It neither serves the interests of the asylum seekers, nor of the Government, nor of the Opposition, nor of the rest of the community. It therefore seems to me that if the Prime Minister is creating a video for circulation in Indonesia to deter asylum seekers from contemplating getting onto boats, such a video would be much stronger and more effective if both he and the Opposition leader featured in that video. A bipartisan approach on this issue would serve the national interest.

  3. Frank Brennan says:

    Three points worth noting from Angus Houston’s expert panel report of 2012 which recommended re-establishing offshore processing facilities on Nauru and in PNG when turnbacks were not a viable option:

    3.45 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 IMA s to Australia and
    progress towards the goal of an integrated regional framework for the processing of
    asylum claims.

    3.48 There should be provision for IMA s in Nauru who are determined to have special needs, or to be highly vulnerable, or who need to be moved for other particular reasons, to be transferred to Australia. The Panel recommends that such IMA s come to Australia on a temporary visa. Their conditions and entitlements during this period in Australia would be similar to those that apply to persons currently being processed on a bridging visa. Such arrangements would continue to apply for the period until their application for protection has been fully processed in Nauru and a durable outcome provided.

    3.80 In the Panel’s view, the conditions … for effective, lawful and safe turnbacks of irregular vessels headed for Australia with asylum seekers on board are not currently met in regard to turnbacks to Indonesia. That situation may change in the future, in particular if appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place. It would only do so if the conditions outlined above (paragraph 3.77) are fully met and, in particular, if there are changes in the understandings that exist with regional states and if there is clarification of what constitutes safe and lawful conduct by Australian personnel.

    So now turnbacks are in place, all the more reason to ensure that those determined to have special needs on Nauru and Manus Island are brought to Australia, and all the more reason to get everyone out of the facilities in Nauru and Manus Island ASAP. After five years and more, and with turnbacks in place with bipartisan support, it’s hard to see the need for the ‘circuit breaker’ to be maintained.

  4. Pamela Curr says:

    Another point for hope is that the train stations and bus stations all over SriLankan are postered with threats and warnings against attempting to come to Australia by boat.
    My Tamil friends say that it is unlikely that anyone will try however the people in the camps in India now decades of hopelessness may be encouraged to try.

    Current boat journeys from Sri Lanka are heading to Reunion Island, a French territory. Acceptance as a Refugee allows settlement in France. There is a rigorous process of refugee determination and fast return for negative decisions but unlike Australia the French are observing international conventions no matter how inconvenient they are.
    The 14,000 refugees stuck in Indonesia, many for a decade, are hungry and homeless. Forbidden to work and with no official education for their children are in despair. USA is no longer taking them and Australia has cut off funds to IOM who used to keep them fed and housed with Australian money. Morrison stopped this small act of humanity. They can’t go back or forward.
    A decent Australian government would recognise their plight. Some are family members separated by Australian policy of NO ADVANTAGE for boat arrivals meaning no hope ever.

  5. Tony Kevin says:

    John, Frank, Robert and Tim would know that these things happened in 2001: SIEV X sank south of Sunda Strait, with Australian authorities knowing about it but doing nothing to help save victims; Commander Norman Banks (deceased) of HMAS Adelaide was instructed by Howard’s people not to rescue people (most of whom could not swim) until they were in the water from the sinking SIEV4 – deaths were again wanted; the Norwegian ship Tampa was left to rescue people from the sinking Palapa – deaths were again wanted. Then, in the Rudd-Gillard years, John, Frank, Robert and Tim would know that repeatedly, rescues of boats that appealed for help were done deliberately slowly, or not done at all, and hundreds died as a result. Deaths were wanted. This is part of Australia’s historical record. Morrison is whistling up these demons again as election fodder. I have no confidence that there may not be more contrived refugee deaths at sea before the election. Be alert for this.

    • Pamela Curr says:

      More than a boat arriving although bad enough politically, I fear deaths at sea. Our government knows that this would be the more electorally successful event. Perhaps acynical observation but can any of us deny the possibility from the current mob.
      I have spent time with survivors of boat journeys since 1999. Their stories of notifications and timelines of rescues have never been systematically researched and documented. One day a ROYAL COMMISSION will reveal the game that was played during these vicious decades. I fear it will be too late for the witnesses who lived through it.
      I remember the procedure of ringing Search and Rescue, we had the number and learnt through bitter experience to ask the desperate callers to read the numbers so that we could give coordinates. Not easy on a rocking boat in the dark to people who may be from a landlocked country and who had never travelled on a boat before. The S and R people always punctiliously correct would tell us that they would alert commercial shipping. It was often hours even days later that the Navy was activated to search.
      Men have asked me how it was that Australian planes flew over and acknowledged that they were seen but no help arrived until much later.
      I have no answer.

  6. Michael Flynn says:

    In the new seat of Canberra we will be voting against the Coalition on recent action on refugees and inaction on climate change : stop Adani are busy here. Some mutter that a boat could be chartered in secret to appear when the press are ready for the scare. The book by Tony Kevin on SIEV X is hard to find but some see another Maritime Incident coming. If so perhaps the senate hearings will require officials and lawyers to appear.

  7. Michael D Breen says:

    Morrison:”You are in danger . Our borders are not secure.”(We know fear is a more persuasive motivation than the actual facts) “So we give you False Truths with servings of fear”.
    Trump: “You are in danger. Our borders are not secure.” (We know fear is a more persuasive motivation than the actual facts) “So we give you False Truths with servings of fear”.
    Citizens: “Our borders are not in danger. We are in danger; from professional liars who promote lies, fear and anxiety”.

  8. Ian Hughes says:

    Yet another excellent article on this subject. P&I, and Abul Rizvi, have shown the way with factual, unemotional reporting – thank you all.

    The phrase “who have been warehoused on Manus Island and Nauru for more than five years have” made me feel incredibly sad. Our inhumanity to “warehouse” those who have committed no crime is a stain on our national character. I do long for the day when the camps are closed forever and all claims for asylum are processed on-shore.

    Thank you again, John and team for your outstanding coverage of this critically important matter.

  9. Andrew McRae says:

    Thanks for an entirely sensible article.

    Yes, the boats have ‘stopped’ in one sense, but haven’t ‘stopped’ in another, as the article shows. Thirty three vessels have at least managed to set out – despite the alleged effect of indefinite incarceration – but have been intercepted, the last one apparently 5 months ago. Thus, there can be absolutely no doubt that it is the turn-backs which are doing the job of maintaining a horizon which seems ‘boat-free’ to the ever-anxious voters; clearly, the government doesn’t want Australians to know this.

    In effect, Manus and Nauru constitute a very expensive and very cruel permanent political wedge, nothing more. If anyone is alerting the ‘hordes’ of potential ‘boat people’ waiting in Indonesia for a change of policy, it’s Morrison, with his shouty, hysterical rhetoric. Any sudden and convenient lifting of the veil of silence and secrecy shrouding ‘on-water matters’, can be attributed directly to the machinations of the Liberal government.

  10. Sandra Hey says:

    With all due respect to the above article, it is not only time to stop the shrillness, it is time to stop the lies and propaganda that has been peddled since 2011 by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison the current Prime Minister. A crime was committed against humanity, by those mentioned above who made it impossible for for the Gillard Government to implement the Malaysian solution that would have slowed the people smugglers considerability, the boats were in decline at that time, started up with vigour compliments of the Liberal opposition who used the strategy of fear mongering for a political outcome to get back into power. Of the 1200 hundred who perished at sea, 600 of those are on the heads of Abbott and Morrison due to the pull factor they had created by sinking the Malaysian solution. We are now 2019 and Morrison is using the same method in order to hold onto POWER. Morrison has form as a spinner, lobbyists and propagandist, shows and excercise’s total lack of respect for our Parliament, refuses to follow due process, hence all his previous places of employment, he was either sacked, or he walked managing to Secure handsome payouts on the way.
    The Cross Bench in the House of Representatives should support a motion of no confidence forthwith at the commencement of Parliament next week. Morrison has effectively shut the Parliament down, using taxpayer funds, to fund the Liberal Party Election Campaign. A May election will also allow him to do immeasurable damage by implementing policies that are ideology based in favour of the private sector. Howard and Costello were masters at that during their term, Morrison is singing from the same song sheet.

  11. Alan Brooks says:

    John, is there any way this excellent article, and your other article published today ‘Scott Morrison did not stop the boats’, can be gotten into the Murdoch tabloids? And updated on an occasional basis between now and the coming Federal election?
    I suspect many readers of Pearls and Irritations would already agree with the substance of both articles. But those who need to be made aware of the content of these articles would, I suspect, not read P&I.
    I would be happy to donate money for full page paid adverts in the tabloids, if that is what is needed.

  12. Jacinta Sinclair says:

    Thank you for this article. I would like to share it widely. Before I do so, I would rather you changed “slither” towards the end of the second last paragraph, to “sliver”. I realise that this is pedantry, and is extremely minor in the context of the article, however I wouldn’t wish to give trolls any unnecessary room to move.

    With many thanks for what you do.


    • Marilyn Shepherd says:

      This article is again advocating we save 1,000 and turn away everyone else even though they know it is a crime against humanity, As Tony Kevin points out the only reason refugees drowned is because Australian governments let them, we use them as pawns in worse and more dangerously sick games and these men want more of the same.

      It’s not smart or clever, it’s disgusting and utterly monstrous.

  13. Tony Kevin says:

    I would not like to exclude the possibility that the desperately flailing and failing Morrison Government – really, dead men walking – could try to put improper political pressure on Australia’s intelligence and border protection agencies ABF and ADF to greenlight a asylum-seeker boat through or even to encourage a maritime rescue or failure-to- rescue tragedy involving deaths. Such things happened, I regret to say , under Howard (Tampa, SIEV 4 and SIEV X) and under Rudd and Gillard 2007-2012. See my books ’A Certain Maritime Incident’ and ‘Reluctant Rescuers’ respectively. It is vital in coming months that Labor make clear to the agencies that it has their backs in resisting any such possible pressures: as Kim Beazley did not do in 2001, and as the Coalition did not do in 2007-2012. My friends the four authors of this essay may be too sanguine that the present safe turnbacks policy is secure and has full bipartisan support. Yes, but. …. stuff happens in politics when governments are desperate.

    • Marilyn Shepherd says:

      And turnbacks are illegal, why do they think it’s acceptable to save 1,000 people we have tortured to the point of death while telling everyone else to die.

    • tasi timor says:

      Tony. Australians generally assume without question that our politicians are supremely rational actors who always calculate the national interest. We forget that politics is also personal. The genesis of the hardline shift against asylum seekers was not ‘border security’ and it didn’t come from Howard. It came from his Immigration Minister, who had an extraordinary temper tantrum over asylum seekers demanding advanced and expensive dental care, which the then Minister claimed most Australians couldn’t afford.

      ‘…or even to encourage a maritime rescue or failure-to- rescue tragedy involving deaths’

      The events you refer to due were systemic incompetence. The intelligence gathering, processing and sharing system is always open to legitimate political direction and improper interference. Even given the best sources, field agents rarely if ever are able to report actionable intelligence in real time. Then a range of others decide what to do with it, how much of it, and how to share it with customers. More time is wasted. Yes, people die in the interim, but it’s something less than conspiracy. It’s frustratingly slow and gets slower when someone decides to go on holiday. And on the few occasions the public gets a glimpse of these systemic failures the ensuing panic as politicians scramble to deflect responsibility may well give the impression of conspiracy. Govts decide what intelligence will be sought. Those who collect it covertly will not freelance. The answers to questions likely to be embarrassing or not to support policy simply will not be tasked, and can easily be filtered out without the Minister even being informed. Perhaps Home Affairs has overcome some of these historical weaknesses and more actionable intelligence is being produced than was previously the case. It certainly doesn’t seem to have reduced the potential for political interference.

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