MICHAEL KELLY SJ The biggest con in any current debate in Australian public life

In a highly contested event, one political con over the last decade stands out as the greatest bipartisan piece of deception in any enduring debate: the obfuscation employed in the public arguments over asylum seeker arrivals in Australia.

Public attention and a great deal of grief laden anxiety has focused on the public disgrace of Australia’s handling of asylum seekers left for years on Manus and Nauru Islands in the Pacific. This has all been explained to us as being necessary to “stop the boats” as our hand-wringing politicians on both sides of the Parliament tell us that their real concern is to prevent deaths at sea as desperate people make a run for a better future.

Or the “hard men”, though they aren’t all men, tell us the electorate is in panic because of the feared invasion of queue-jumping asylum seekers coming by boat to Australia’s shores in search of refuge. An exaggerated account of the threat posed by asylum seekers landing by boat has been agreed to be a taken-for-granted assumption for both Labor and the Coalition.

Now, thanks to the work of Abul Rivzi here in Pearls and Irritations https://johnmenadue.com/abul-rizvi-dutton-sets-new-asylum-seeker-application-record-2/ the reality of what’s going on has come to light. The sham of it all has been reiterated in all its clarity by Michael Pascoe drawing on Rivzi’s revelations https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/national/2018/12/09/record-number-asylum-seekers-peter-dutton/

None of us should be surprised by what’s happening in our world. People movement is historically a human constant and through all of our history, Australia has been a beneficiary of migration but especially of refugee arrivals. Yet in the last decade we’ve lost our taste for responding to the constant and inevitable facts of life on this planet and even created a department named to state just where we’ve reached: Border Protection.

Migration and refugee intake used to be part of what our program began as: nation building. That’s out the door now and the Department is officially committed to maintaining an immigration policy that defends our security requirements first and foremost.

The political farce that now prevails has been a long time in the making. Australia’s first chance to get it right was in the last decade: the plan to come to an arrangement to settle some illegals in Malaysia during the Rudd Government’s tenure.

See also ‘John Menadue and Peter Hughes. Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals. Part 1‘ and ‘Part 2‘.

That was scuttled when Tony Abbott displayed his only political talent – to oppose – and he managed to thwart the resettlement of some asylum seekers in Malaysia apparently on a matter of high principle – that since Malaysia was not a signatory to the UN Conventions on refugees and asylum seekers and so they couldn’t be trusted to take our load.

The Greens dutifully complied with the Coalition’s moral misgivings and appeal to high principle and the plan was ditched. That’s where Rudd’s appalling and enduring “Pacific solution” (to what you might ask?) got its kick off. And look what that’s delivered!

The Coalition then introduced the reign of Morrison and Dutton. Leaving the former’s crocodile tears about children in our Pacific Gulags to one side and completely ignoring what a dill Peter Dutton is, let’s just go beneath the facts as shown by Rizvi and Pascoe.

The “stop the boats” mantra from Abbott was, as any amount of data demonstrates, predicated on a lie. The boats had stopped from Rudd and Gillard on. Why? Because their governments worked with the Indonesians diplomatically to thwart the people smugglers.

But smart and ruthless business people that they are, the smugglers changed tactics. They stopped helping people onto boats and arranged airline tickets.

And I can say from personal experience that the dills managing this catastrophe knew it all five years ago. I have been advocating for a group of desperate refugees in Bangkok for at least five years and to little effect.

When Abbott was Prime Minister, I approached him personally about helping this group of forlorn Pakistani Christians fleeing the alarming dysfunction of their own failed State that landed them in fear of their lives in Bangkok, seeking to avoid death at the hands of Islamic extremists in Pakistan.

Abbott shuffled me off to the Minister responsible for refugee resettlement, Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells. A plainly manipulative Italian Australian Catholic, she assured “Father” of how much she cared about refugees and just about anyone. She did nothing of course.

But in the course of the conversation told me her biggest challenge – this is four years ago – was processing 50,000 illegals already on shore! And that was early 2015!

The latest figures only compound how large the problem is and how hopeless its management has been.

Lurking behind the incompetence of the politicians is something even more destructive: the administration of the Department which has been denuded of capacity while it has been in the hands of a single and notably underachieving but nevertheless consistently engaged Secretary: Michael Pezzullo.

This has all happened on his watch. He must get the prize for the best upwards manager in the Federal public service. No catastrophe disturbs his steady hold on the leadership of the Department. No evidence – such as the latest kerfuffle about outsourcing visa functions to the inappropriate because downsizing the Department has led to processing chaos – ever dissuades his Ministerial betters from holding him accountable for the mess he’s got Australian migration and refugee intake into.

And still the con continues. We obsess about Manus and Nauru and exploit the people there for political effect. We just ignore the mess that incompetent Ministers and hopeless bureaucrats have created.

Why is there a mess? Too many people who don’t know what they don’t know, a Minister who brings all the competence of a Queensland policeman to a complex portfolio and the service he gets from senior staff who seem to only know how to manage upwards.

If it weren’t so tragic, it would make a script for a great episode of Yes Minister!

So what’s the way out? It really takes a Minster to do what Paul Keating did about the Australian economy when he derided it as full of just “copper wire telcos and rust bucket industries”. He spent at least five years giving weekly seminars through press conferences that educated Australians about our prospects if we didn’t change: the “Pacific peso” for our currency and a “banana republic” for our political economy.

This time we need information and education. Not fear and fakery.

Will the next government deliver that? I don’t see any Paul Keating in immigration around the place.

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Father Michael Kelly is an Australian Jesuit who directed the Catholic Church's news feature and commentary service, UCA News, 2008-2018. He is the publisher of the English editions of La Croix International and La Civilta Cattolica, the 170 year old Jesuit publication of the Italian Jesuits.

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