We can be proud of what we have done for refugees in the past but like many others I am ashamed that we have had a succession of leaders who have appealed to our most selfish and inhuman instincts.
When I feel discouraged about the behaviour of our political leaders I am reminded of Graham Greene’s challenge that ‘the only unforgiveable sin is despair’.
At least some Labor candidates are concerned about the damage that current policies are doing, both to asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru and to our own national reputation.
Probably the most xenophobic comment of all came from the Liberal Member for Dawson, who has said that he does not want to see any refugees coming to his electorate in Queensland, presumable even Syrian refugees flown out by his own government from the terror and death in Syria in the aftermath of Western military intervention in the Middle East. As on so many other issues, Malcolm Turnbull was not there when we needed him to intervene.
The greatest hypocrisy of all is ‘leaders’ telling us that the tough approach on asylum seekers is to ‘stop drownings at sea’. It is nothing of the sort. The tough approach is not to save lives. It is for political reasons and the belief that Australians will vote against any government that is soft on people arriving by boat. It is to exploit fear of the person that is different.
If the government was genuinely concerned about deaths at sea, it would be sending out the Navy to rescue those in distress on the sea. If it was really to save lives, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison would be queuing up for a Nobel Peace prize. But they know that talking about saving drownings at sea is a device to hide their inhuman policies.
Hopefully after the election ‘the better angels of our nature’ will prevail and we could have a prime minister and a leader of the opposition who could find common ground on politically realistic and decent policies.
An assumption that we all first need to make is that boat arrivals cannot be allowed to restart. Australians have shown that they will support a generous humanitarian program that is orderly, regular and one controlled by the Australian government. But they will not tolerate unauthorised boat arrivals.
An orderly process requires that parallel arrivals by boat, with the help of people-smugglers must not resume.
One reason for the success of the Indochina program under Malcolm Fraser was that there were very few boat arrivals. The maximum number of people arriving in Australia by boat in any one year during the Fraser government period was 1,700. By mid-2013 people arriving by boat was approaching 50,000 per year before the Rudd government acted. The role of people smugglers and the number of boat arrivals was on a scale we had not seen before. And it was not Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison who stopped the boats.
On the basis of an orderly program and no ‘irregular arrivals’, I believe that a generous humanitarian program based on the following would be acceptable to most Australians.
- An increase in the annual humanitarian program from 12,500 to 25,000 p.a.
- Negotiate orderly departure arrangements with key countries that have minorities facing persecution and/or discrimination, e.g. Tamils in Sri Lanka, Hazaras in Afghanistan and Rohingya in Myanmar. I would expect that the governments in those countries would welcome the departure of those they regard as troublesome minorities. In 1983, Australia negotiated an Orderly Departure Program with Vietnam. Under that program 100,000 Vietnamese came to Australia in an orderly and government-arranged program which meant that many Vietnamese chose not to take the route of dangerous sea voyages. And they arrived with documentation.
- Develop new migration pathways for people whose status is unclear – whether they are economic migrants or refugees. Presently we have about 900,000 temporary residents in Australia. They include 457 visa holders, students and working holiday makers. It should be possible to establish a new visa category to meet the needs of people who fall in the grey zone of refugees/economic migrants.
- Abolish mandatory detention immediately. Mandatory detention was introduced by the Keating government in 1993. It was designed to deter boat arrivals. It has not achieved this and is very expensive. Few countries have such harsh, expensive and failed deterrent policies.
- A longer-term and essential path for our refugee policies must be to build on the Bali process and establish a framework of cooperation in our region to manage flows of people into, out of and within our region. Together with others, I have been involved with the Centre for Policy Development to build a viable frame work of regional cooperation. We are endeavouring to develop what we call a Track II Dialogue between interested people, officials in their private capacity and others to break the impasse on regional cooperation and build the Bali process into a workable program of burden-sharing in the region. The successful Indochina program would not have been possible without the close cooperation of regional countries and settlement countries like Australia and the US. Every situation is different, but that earlier experience showed clearly that regional cooperation and burden sharing is essential.
But the immediate problem is the 2,000 souls on Manus and Nauru.
After the election the prime minister should put to the leader of the opposition two key proposals.
The first is that the 2,000 people who are being so mistreated in offshore detention should be brought immediately to Australia for processing. There is no alternative and we should stop pretending there is. They should live in our community on bridging visas while their status is determined.
The second is that Operation Sovereign Borders be stepped up to ensure no more boat arrivals. As part of this policy, we should inform and negotiate with Indonesia and Malaysia that for every, say, 10 boat people that we turn back, we will accept 100 refugees from those countries that have been processed in an orderly way. That will be a tough policy for refugee advocates to accept, but I believe it is necessary to help the 2,000 wounded souls on Manus and Nauru.