So, it looks like the campaigning for the Australian election has started, before it has even been called. The attack ads are out already, and now we are seeing policy announcements.
As I did in 2007, I’ll be taking a close look at policies as they are unveiled, and covering the debates.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott both unveiled their party’s policies on asylum seekers today, amid accusations of dog-whistling and slogan-slinging. Here’s my take … first, the policy unveiled by Tony Abbott. You can find a summary here.
The first thing that is immediately apparent is just how much the Coalition policy is a backward leap. There is very little that is new – in fact, I have to wonder if someone in Abbott’s staff dusted off some old Howard-era policies and prettied them up a bit. These are the main points.
Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs)
Under a Coalition government, TPVs would be immediately reinstated. These were first introduced in 1999, and the Rudd government abolished them. A TPV effectively puts a third step in the refugee process. A person would claim asylum, be mandatorily detained, then after processing be granted a TPV. Some years later, that person would have to re-apply for asylum – in case, according to the Howard government, conditions had significantly changed for the better in their country of origin. Assuming their claim was upheld, a permanent visa would be issued.
A TPV imposes a huge number of restrictions on a refugee. They may not leave the country under any circumstances. They are prohibited from seeking employment or claiming benefits from Social Security. Finally, they may not apply to have their family join them under a family reunion program.
Those who support the idea of TPVs say that it allows for flexibility in processing refugees, and acts as a deterrent for those who ‘misuse’ the asylum process. The problem, though, is that TPVs effectively place refugees in a no-man’s-land of extreme uncertainty. The bar on employment or Social Security leaves them with no possible way of supporting themselves or any family who made the trip with them. This virtually forces them to break Australian law, either by seeking cash-in-hand employment or by engaging in crime,all so they can put food on the table. If caught, such people are automatically deported.
Mandatory detention is recognised by the UNHCR and refugee advocate groups as a psychologically stressful process, with many refugees requiring years of counselling. Add to that a situation in which simple family responsibility is rendered virtually impossible by design, and you have a cascading problem that may never be addressed.
Another backward step in the Coalition policy is the re-introduction of offshore processing. During the Howard years, this was known as the ‘Pacific Solution’, in reference to the detention centre that was built and maintained on Nauru with Australian government money. Under the Pacific Solution, intercepted asylum seekers were towed or escorted to Nauru by Australian Navy personnel. Nauru is geographically remote, with very little infrastructure. The only reason there was settlement there in the first place is because it had phosphate mines (which are now exhausted). The injection of money from Australia came at a crucial time for the Nauru government. Part of the arrangement included an unofficial ‘discouragement’ of visits by media – or, in fact, anyone who did not have an absolute right to be there. Some refugees were kept in this barren isolation for years.
The Nauru centre is now closed. The Coalition has not said whether they will attempt to reopen that facility, or build another. Their policy statement simply says ‘another country’.
Denial of Refugee Status without Documentation
One of the new elements of the Coalition’s policy states that any asylum seeker suspected of ‘deliberately’ destroying or discarding their identification will be presumed not to be a true refugee, and will therefore be deported at the first opportunity. This is a very dangerous policy. It is completely subjective. Unless an Australian official actually catches someone in the act of burning or dumping documents, it is entirely a matter of opinion as to whether a lack of identification is indicative of an intended deception. It does not take into account any other possible explanation.
Most asylum seekers risk their lives on boats that are barely seaworthy – and in some cases, only kept afloat through constant bailing by those on board. Often, these boats sink. This may be due to sabotage or simple accident. Put yourself in the place of those people. Your boat is sinking. You need to save yourself, and perhaps your children. Is locating your ID going to be the first thing on your mind? Of course not.
The Coalition’s policy also fails to take into account the fact that many asylum seekers simply do not have any documentation. Political dissidents often take steps to make themselves unidentifiable – not because they wish to deceive a country of refuge, but because they would be prevented from leaving if their identification was sighted. Members of persecuted minorities may also be denied citizenship papers.
The Coalition’s policy announcement dismisses the government’s case-by-case approach as ‘tick and flick’, implying that assessing each case on its merits and making a decision on the balance of probabilities is somehow unfair. Instead, it proposes an automatic assumption of guilt, and – crucially – says nothing about avenues of appeal.
Turn Back the Boats
This has become a de facto slogan for the Coalition, and was included in the policy measures announced today. Where possible, boats would be forced to return to their port of origin. The statement does not say how this is to be accomplished, though Abbott’s press conference indicated that it would be a similar approach that used in the Howard years. In other words, Australian Coast Guard and Defence personnel would patrol known avenues of approach and prevent boats from landing in Australia’s migration zone.
When this policy was in use, only 12 boats were actually intercepted, and never without incident. Three, in fact, sank. This approach stemmed from the so-called Tampa affair, during which the Australian government attempted to prevent a Norwegian ship that had rescued asylum seekers in distress from landing in Australia’s migration zone. Although unsuccessful in the Tampa case, the government rewrote the country’s migration borders to allow them to turn away any boat deemed ‘unauthorised’.
This approach endangers lives. As previously noted, the boats are none too seaworthy anyway, and, reportedly, some boats have been scuttled when ordered to turn around. In 2009, this led to the deaths of five people, with a further 51 injured, including Australian Navy personnel who had boarded the craft to render assistance. The Coalition’s flat statement that they will ‘turn back the boats’ does nothing to address this possibility. In a case where a boat sinks, international law compels Australia to render immediate assistance. Should those rescued be taken on board, and receive medical assistance, they can immediately request asylum. The Coalition’s policy is worryingly silent on what it would do in those circumstances.
Sponsored Refugee Program
The last major element of Coalition policy involves trialling a system that is in use in Canada. Under this system, ‘interested parties’ can apply to sponsor refugees over and above Australia’s recommended quota (13,750 as of 2010). These interested parties are not defined in the policy statement, though Abbott did refer to ‘business’, effectively likening this to a form of targeted skilled migration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, some 9.7% of refugee claims fell under this ‘sponsored by business’ category in 2000.
The Canadian model requires sponsors to pay ‘financial settlement assistance’ and provide ’emotional assistance’ for one year, after which the sponsorship customarily ends. The refugees are drawn from those who have already entered the system by claiming asylum through ‘regular’ channels. If the Coalition intends to apply the Canadian model as it currently exists, it could provide opportunities for refugees to settle in Australia. It should be pointed out, however, that this part of its policy does not address the question of arrivals by boat at all.
So that’s the Coalition’s policy in a nutshell. But before I move on to the ALP policy, let’s just take a look at the language used, in both the Policy Statement and Abbott’s press conference. First, there were the frequent reference to legitimate refugees – implying, of course, that anyone who arrived by boat was automatically not ‘really’ in need of asylum. This is just another way of saying ‘queue-jumper’. At one point in the press conference, Abbott referred to illegal boat people, which harks right back to the first wave of refugees-by-boat from Vietnam in the 1970s. Abbott took it one step further, though, not only using the pejorative ‘boat people’, but implying that the mere existence of these people breached some kind of unwritten moral law.
Then there is border protection and integrity of our borders. The unspoken message here is that those who make the journey by boat to seek asylum, often putting themselves in the hands of criminals and risking their lives, are a threat to our country in the same way an invading force would be. This is the language of fear, and, married to the marginalising and demonising language also being used, makes for a deadly combination.
The sprinkling of words like fair and generous do nothing to allay this fear.
Almost everything in the Coalition’s policy appears designed to legitimise the most xenophobic attitudes, while attempting to salve the Australian conscience by reassuring us that we are, in fact, the most generous of countries. Worryingly, it is precisely this approach that worked so well for the Coalition in the 2001 election following the Tampa affair. At that time, the ALP in Opposition was hopelessly divided on the subject, and had little in the way of coherent refugee policy – a fact exploited to great effect by the Howard government. It seems that the Coalition are hoping for a similar situation this year … which brings me to Julia Gillard’s announcement this morning.