JOHN MENADUE. Is the Coalition better able to manage our borders?

For many years senior journalists have been telling us, or at least accepting the spin, that conservatives are better economic managers. I don’t think there is evidence to back that claim as several writers have pointed out in this blog.

The other area where many senior journalists have been even more gullible is the acceptance of the claim that conservatives are better able to manage our borders. Again I don’t think this view can be sustained.

Journalists are now under-resourced to do their job properly, but on an issue so much debated as border protection, they should examine the facts. There are three key issues which senior journalists should reflect upon.

The first is that the Howard government wound down the Pacific Solution to a very modest level when it felt the job had been done.

Following Tampa in 2001, 1,637 people were transferred to Nauru and Manus mainly over the following year. Boat arrivals temporarily stopped.

The Howard government pursued international resettlement of refugees and voluntary returns of non-refugees. . Voluntary returns worked for a period, but resettlement of refugees in Australia and New Zealand was the safety valve used to progressively reduce the populations. The government came to the view that it was not practical to leave a large number of refugees indefinitely in Nauru when all other options for their international resettlement had clearly run out.

The Pacific Solution was originally intended to be a quick operation – a matter of months rather than years – for the purpose of streamlined refugee status determination, international resettlement of refugees and repatriation of non-refugees. Right from the beginning the Howard government had said that Australia would take its ‘fair share’ of people found to be refugees on Manus and Nauru. In the first couple of years Australia took some refugees, New Zealand took a lot (at our request) and a few other countries took refugees at the request of UNHCR. But as time dragged on, things got uglier with concern about conditions on Manus and Nauru, demonstrations and lip-sewing and other self-harm. The Howard government was pragmatic enough to realise that they had run out of options and couldn’t leave the remaining people there indefinitely.

By late 2007, when the Howard Government lost office, the “original caseload” had been cleared from the offshore processing centre and there were there was a caseload of only 82 maritime asylum seekers (who had arrived in 2007) on Nauru. Manus had been closed.

Overall, of 1637 people that had been detained on Nauru and Manus, 705 came to Australia, 401 to New Zealand and 483 were voluntary returns. There were about 50 others who were resettled in other countries.

Whilst the Rudd government formally dismantled the Pacific Solution in February 2008, the facts on the ground showed that under the Howard Government, the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers had been resettled in Australia and New Zealand or returned home.   The Howard government had already cleared out the caseload and reduced the Pacific Solution to a very modest level. . Most journalists have missed this.

For details, see Parliament of Australia, The ‘Pacific Solution’ revisited: a statistical guide to the asylum seeker caseloads on Nauru and Manus Island, 4th September 2012.

Not surprisingly, the Secretary of Immigration at the time, Andrew Metcalfe, told a Senate Committee that the Pacific Solution could not be repeated because any asylum seekers knew that if they even if they had to undergo a period of detention in Manus or Nauru, they were likely to find final settlement in Australia or New Zealand.

Secondly, by opposing the Malaysia Arrangement, the Coalition triggered a large increase in boat arrivals from 4 to 5 per month in mid 2011 to 48 in July 2013.

Some months after the end of the Pacific Solution, boat arrivals slowly resumed, initially at very low levels, but gradually increasing to a moderate level of about 4 to 5 per month in 2009 and worsening in 2010. In response to this, after other initiatives had only limited effect, the Gillard Government negotiated an arrangement with the Malaysian government which was designed to remove any further incentive for asylum seekers to board boats to Australia. The Arrangement was seen as part of a genuine regional cooperation approach involving the main transit country for asylum seekers and it had the qualified support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

There were some key dates. On 31 August 2011, the High Court found against the Immigration ministers power to transfer asylum seekers to Malaysia to give effect to the Malaysian Arrangement. In the next month the Gillard government introduced legislation which would enable the government to proceed with the transfers. There was strong opposition to the Bill in the House of Representatives by the Coalition led by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison who were bitterly critical of Malaysia. Bandt (Greens), Katter and Wilkie also opposed the Bill. The legislation did not pass.

With the legislation stalled, there was a substantial increase in boat arrivals, particularly from Sri Lanka and Iraq. By May 2012, boat arrivals had risen to 16 in that month and reached a monthly peak of 48 in July 2013.

In response to the earlier community outcry over conditions on Nauru, the Labor government had ended the Pacific solution, in the belief that the maritime arrivals in the period 1998–2003 were a one-off phenomenon. As the flow of boats gradually resumed, they pursued a number of measures aimed at bringing them to an end. Tony Abbott blocked the one that was most likely to succeed the Malaysian Arrangement. He continued to cling on to the far more expensive and harsh Nauru option.

The Coalition under Tony Abbott was not interested in stopping the boats. Its primary interest was to stop Labor stopping the boats. And they succeeded with the help of the Greens and many refugee advocates.

The campaign against the Malaysian Arrangement was driven hard by many in the media. Many Australian journalists were highly critical of the Malaysian Arrangement without any reflection on what was actually available on the table and what the alternatives might be. Refugee advocates in Australia were very vocal in their opposition to the Malaysian Arrangement. They were supported by domestic opponents of the government in Malaysia.

The bashing of Malaysia went on for months. Many media outlets, particularly the partisan News Ltd. publications featured photographs of Malaysian Immigration Detention centres that were not going to be used under the Arrangement or featured images of corporal punishment as if every transferred asylum seeker would automatically be subject to it. The Malaysian Arrangement, with the involvement of the UNHCR would have prevented such violations.

It was surprising that even highly experienced journalists on ABC RN appeared to take such a negative stance against the Malaysia Arrangement, despite the support it received from UNHCR.

There appeared to be very few who realized that without the Malaysia Arrangement, the next step would almost certainly be return to the much harsher arrangements in Nauru and Manus and the problems that now confront us there.

Paul Kelly was one of the few journalists that actually saw that failure to proceed with the Malaysia Arrangement would not only miss a genuine chance to build a regional cooperative arrangement, but would also be prejudicial to future opportunities.

Thirdly, the media and others accept the spin that Tony Abbott ‘stopped the boats’. He did not.

The Gillard government and second Rudd government’s subsequent interventions in relation to boat arrivals in 2012-13 were decisive.

There were three main elements.

  • Enhanced (meaning really quick) screening of Sri Lankans at sea or briefly on Australian territory followed by quickly returning them to Sri Lanka.
  • Persuading the Indonesian government to impose a visa requirement on Iranians and thereby reducing the flow of Australia bound Iranians into Indonesia. Barnaby Joyce seems unaware of this cooperation by Indonesia.
  • The harsh measures of the second Rudd regime in July 2013 in announcing that future boat arrivals would be sent to offshore processing centres and that such persons arriving by boat would never be settled in Australia.

As a result of these three measures, boat arrivals fell from 48 in July 2013 to 7 in December 2013 when Tony Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders took effect. The job was almost done by the time Tony Abbott’s border protection policies of turn-backs to Indonesia commenced. Tony Abbott was responsible for the end-game in stopping boat arrivals, but the decisions of the Rudd government were the decisive ones. However, with all the furore about turn backs and silence about “on water matters”, too many journalists seem to fall for the mantra that Tony Abbott’s actions were what made the difference. They did not.

As with the claim that conservatives are better economic managers, so I think the evidence is clear that conservatives cannot claim to be better managers of our borders. The facts as I have outlined above do not support that proposition.

In that error the Coalition has had the dubious support of many journalists who refuse to face the facts or accept responsibility that they have been misled and how in turn they have misled the public.

Spin and slogans have been allowed to win the day on three key issues; the fact that the Pacific solution had already been wound down to a very modest level by 2007; how blocking of the Malaysian Arrangement triggered a dramatic increase in boat arrivals and how it was the subsequent actions of the Gillard and second Rudd government in 2012–13 that left Tony Abbott with very few boats left to stop.

It is time some journalists looked at the facts.

For further background see links to two articles by Peter Hughes and me on how the upsurge in boat arrivals in 2012/13 was triggered by the Coalition and how the Rudd Government decision in July 2013 was decisive in winding back boat arrivals.

John Menadue and Peter Hughes. Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals. Part 1.

John Menadue and Peter Hughes. Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals. Part 2.

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One Response to JOHN MENADUE. Is the Coalition better able to manage our borders?

  1. Kevin Bain says:

    As I understand it, this broad analysis was first put forward here in December 2014 and repeated a couple of times in 2015. It is strongly argued and evidenced, yet attracts little comment on this site. When Mr Menadue wrote at The Drum on the GG appointment in 2014, 333 people responded. So I don’t understand why it’s not taken to the main stage eg. The Conversation or The Drum, where a highly credentialled author with heterodox views could really spark a necessary rethink. Anything is justified to raise the quality of analysis for wicked problems like refugee policy.

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