Robert Manne. “When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, Sir.” JM Keynes

Sep 29, 2014

You might be interested in this repost. John Menadue.


I have been a supporter of refugee rights since the mid-1970s, when with others I formed the Indo-China Refugee Association. During the period of the Howard government I wrote tens of thousands of words in defence of the asylum seekers fleeing from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. This interest arose from family history. Not only was I the child of refugees from Nazism. I very recently discovered that not long after my father was accepted by this country he wrote passionate articles in The Jewish News expressing, on the one hand, gratitude to Australia, and, on the other, radical astonishment that the most anti-fascist element in the community, Jewish refugees, were subject to petty forms of discrimination as enemy aliens. I mention all this to make it clear that what I am going to say this afternoon is delivered with a heavy heart.

The asylum seeker issue, or more accurately, the issue of those asylum seekers who arrive by boat, has been near the centre of Australian politics for the past fifteen years. Opinion has generally fallen into two broad camps—the friends of the asylum seekers and their enemies. These camps have now become very rigid. Thought has become frozen. As happens when thought is frozen, dishonesty abounds.

The dishonesty of the enemies of the asylum seekers is familiar. They deny or diminish the human cruelty of their deterrent policies—mandatory indefinite detention; temporary protection visas; offshore processing; tow-back to Indonesia. They close their eyes to the damage these deterrent policies inflict upon the reputation of this country, especially in the Asia-Pacific region where the White Australia Policy is remembered. Their attitudes moreover reek of hypocrisy. The enemies of the asylum seekers opposed the idea of deterring boat arrivals by sending eight hundred to Malaysia on the grounds that it was not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. They simultaneously advocated towing boats back to Indonesia, itself not a signatory to the Convention. In public, they shed crocodile tears about the hundreds of drownings that occurred under the policies of Rudd and Gillard. In private despite the mass drownings they were delighted with the political advantages the accelerated arrivals offered to the Abbott Opposition, as a WikiLeaks cable revealed.

Of more interest to me however is the dishonesty that I have witnessed among my former allies—the friends of the asylum seekers.  From late August 2001 the Howard government introduced the policies of offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island and occasional tow-back to Indonesia, known as the Pacific Solution. Between 2002 and 2007 virtually no asylum seekers arrived by boat. And yet throughout these years, almost without exception, the friends of the asylum seekers refused to admit that in its deterrent objective the policy had worked.

In 2008 the Rudd government dismantled the Pacific Solution. Shortly after, the asylum seeker boats returned, eventually in much larger numbers than during the Howard period. Under Howard there were approximately 13,000 boat asylum seekers; in just the final year of the Gillard government some 25,000. And yet the friends of the asylum seekers rarely admitted that it was the dismantling of the Howard policies that was primarily responsible. Frequently the friends of the asylum seekers claimed that with firm political leadership the anti-asylum seeker sentiment of the Australian people could be turned. This denied the meaning of hundreds of public opinion surveys and flew in the face of common sense.

Most troublingly, the friends of the asylum seekers failed to register the moral meaning of the 1100 certain or probable drownings that took place under Rudd and Gillard. There was great anguish at the time of the mass drowning following the sinking of SIEV-X in October 2001 for which the Howard government was blamed. There has been even greater anguish following the recent terrible death of Reza Berati on Manus Island for which the policies of the Abbott government have been blamed. But among the friends of the asylum seekers, the mass drownings that took place under Rudd and Gillard barely registered or lingered in collective memory. I frequently read articles by prominent friends of the asylum seekers berating the present policies of offshore processing and tow-back where even the fact of mass death by drowning is not mentioned.

In their principled opposition to all forms of deterrent policy, many friends of the asylum seekers are wedded to a Kantian absolute—for them it is never permissible to save a greater number of lives by treating certain people, like those presently marooned on offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, as a means to an end. Others are legal absolutists, for whom, no matter what the consequences, it is never permissible for what they believe is the letter or spirit of international law, in this case the UN Refugee Convention, to be violated by a regime of offshore processing. Yet others are indifferent to the political dimension of the asylum seeker question. For them there is no problem for the Labor Party, the only opposition party that is a serious contender for government, to hand a permanent political advantage to its Coalition opponents. This position implies that in Australia today the asylum seeker issue should trump all other considerations, for example whether or not our country becomes involved in the most vital question of our era—the struggle to combat global warming.  In my view, all these forms of absolutism—moral, legal, anti-political—are wrong-headed. On the asylum seeker issue many moral, legal and political questions have to be balanced and taken into account. The world is complex. Asylum seeker policy is inherently very difficult.

Because of their commitment to one or another form of absolutism, almost all friends of the asylum seekers now advocate the dismantling of the policy of offshore processing and tow-back, in other words a return to the policy of the Rudd government in 2007-8. Our only reliable guide to what might eventuate if they succeeded in their ambition is what happened in the past. Following Rudd’s abandonment of the Pacific Solution, three things occurred. The issue of asylum seekers helped undermine the government’s popularity and served the interests of the Coalition. Asylum seekers arrived by boat in accelerating numbers—in 2010-11, 5,000; in 2011-12, 8,000 and in 2012-13, 25,000. Most importantly, in these few years, on their way to Australia, some 1100 asylum seekers died at sea. Those who now advocate the end of the current policy of offshore processing and tow-back, a policy that has quite predictably stopped the boats, need to explain why history will not repeat itself.

There is another consequence of the present position of the friends of the asylum seekers—by campaigning for the dismantling of offshore processing, they have abandoned any prospect of contributing to the formulation of a more humane and politically realistic asylum seeker and refugee policy. One aspect would be to look to conditions in the offshore processing centres and the ultimate fate of those presently there in such a way that suffering was diminished but the deterrent purpose maintained. The other would be to look to the future of the thirty thousand or so recently arrived asylum seekers in Australia who are being treated with great cruelty by the present government. Some of these people are in detention centres. A larger number are on one or another form of bridging visa, waiting for their asylum seeker claims to be assessed. Some with adverse ASIO assessments have been imprisoned without trial for life. Many are living in penury. Many are not allowed to work. These people are promised that even if they are assessed to be genuine refugees they will never be allowed to become permanent citizens.

Through the combination of these policies, Australia for the first time in its history has a government that is consciously engineering the creation of an immigrant under-class.  As there is now an effective deterrent at the border, older ineffective domestic deterrent policies—like mandatory detention, temporary protection visas, absence of work rights or access to decent welfare services—are not only cruel but entirely purposeless.  They are also quite predictably creating social problems for Australia in the future. All these policies should be abandoned.

It is, moreover, a misunderstanding to think that Australians are hostile to refugees. Historical experience and almost all opinion polls show that Australians are opposed not to refugees but to those who arrive without visas by boat. It was more politically difficult for the Fraser government to accept the 2,000 Vietnamese spontaneous boat refugee arrivals than the tens of thousands selected by the government from the South-East Asian camps.

Rather than advocating the dismantling of offshore processing, the friends of the asylum seekers in my opinion could play a far more fruitful role by the advocacy of full human rights for those asylum seekers presently on Australian soil, and an annual refugee intake of 30,000 refugees chosen from among those in most desperate need, like the persecuted Hazaras of Afghanistan or the Rohingyas of Myanmar, the ethno-religious groups most closely experiencing what the Jews of Central Europe experienced in the late 1930s. This is the kind of policy that the Labor Party could realistically take to the next election. It is the policy for which I intend to fight.


This talk was delivered to Limmud Oz in Melbourne on Sunday, June 8 2014. Limmud Oz is a Jewish Festival of Ideas.














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