Last week the government announced it would seek to change the Migration Act. Now, we can get a look at exactly what it is they want to do.
The proposed amendments give the Minister near-absolute power – and just incidentally removes those pesky human rights considerations.
Section 198A allows the Minister to designate a country for off-shore processing. In its current form, that designation needs to meet certain criteria:
(3) The Minister may:
(a) declare in writing that a specified country:
(i) provides access, for persons seeking asylum, to effective procedures for assessing their need for protection; and
(ii) provides protection for persons seeking asylum, pending determination of their refugee status; and
(iii) provides protection to persons who are given refugee status, pending their voluntary repatriation to their country of origin or resettlement in another country; and
(iv) meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection; and
(b) in writing, revoke a declaration made under paragraph (a). (my emphasis)
The government proposes to repeal this sub-section entirely. Instead, they want to substitute this:
@198AB Offshore processing country
(1) The Minister may, in writing, designate that a country is an offshore processing country.
(2) The only condition for the exercise of the power under subsection (1) is that the Minister thinks that it is in the public interest to designate the country to be an offshore processing country.
(3) The power under subsection (1) may only be exercised by the Minister personally.
(4) If the Minister designates a country under subsection (1), the Minister may, in writing, revoke the designation.
(5) The rules of natural justice do not apply to the exercise of the power under subsection (1) or (4).
(6) A designation under subsection (1), or a revocation under subsection (4), is not a legislative instrument. (my emphasis)
Yes, you read that right. If this amendment passes, the Immigration Minister can simply declare that any given country (indeed, any overseas territory, protectorate or colony) is a suitable place to send asylum seekers. The country doesn’t have to meet any standards for protection of those people; in fact, it doesn’t have to concern itself with human rights at all. Forget being a signatory to the UN Conventions on Refugees – the Minister doesn’t even have to make sure there’s somewhere for asylum seekers to be adequately housed.
It also attempts to head off any further High Court action on behalf of asylum seekers. ‘The rules of natural justice do not apply’? That’s a big ‘screw you’ to anyone who might even think about trying to stop the Minister from exercising these incredibly wide-ranging powers.
All of which is apparently to be done ‘in the public interest’. What does that even mean? Whose interest? It’s a wonderful phrase that – evokes nobility and self-sacrifice, but under close examination reveals itself to be nothing more than a way to avoid providing any real reason for doing whatever you want to do.
Just to drive the point home, the government wants to include a few lines in section 198A about exactly why they consider they’re justified:
(c)it is a matter for the Minister to decide which countries should be designated as offshore processing countries; and
(d) the designation of a country to be an offshore processing country need not be determined by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country.
That’s about as blatant as it gets. It’s the government saying, ‘We’ll do what we want’. Worse, it deliberately flies in the face of Australia’s obligations as signatories to those oh-so-troublesome UN Conventions. If the Minister feels like it, he doesn’t have to take any of our international responsibilities into consideration.
There’s some attempt at pacifying those who might object to this arrangement. The Minister has to hand over any documents he used in making his determination to Parliament within two days of designating an offshore processing country. Presumably, this would allow Parliamentary scrutiny. It’s an attempt at transparency – and that can only be a good thing, right?
@198AC Documents to be laid before Parliament
(4) The sole purpose of laying the documents referred to in subsection (2) before the Parliament is to inform the Parliament of the matters referred to in the documents and nothing in the documents affects the validity of the designation. Similarly, the fact that some or all of those documents do not exist does not affect the validity of the designation.
(5) A failure to comply with this section does not affect the validity of the designation. (my emphasis)
In other words, this is nothing more than a show. The Minister doesn’t have to seek UNHCR approval – and even if he does, and the UNHCR says no, it doesn’t matter. He can ignore any advice he gets that doesn’t give him the answer he wants. All he has to do is bundle up the documents and table them. It’s utter contempt for Parliament.
Richard Marles, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Affairs, appeared on Sky news’ AM Agenda this morning. When questioned on these proposed changes, he offered a truly outrageous justification. The government has no choice, he argued. It’s because of the High Court – if they hadn’t made all these ‘new’ restrictions, we could be shipping people to Malaysia right now.
That dastardly High Court. Look at what they did. They ruled that we couldn’t send people to a country with a terrible human rights record. They declared that we had to meet our international obligations as regards human rights. No wonder the government was ‘forced’ to strip out every possible protection for asylum seekers from the legislation. What could they do, after all?
It was a weaselling little attempt to avoid criticism, and to his credit, Marles didn’t look comfortable saying it. Nonetheless, he did – and repeated it several times.
Sky’s David Speers then confronted Marles with the Labor Party’s own national policy platform: that protection claims made in Australia ‘will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory’. Marles’ response?
We have to stop the boats. This is about protecting asylum seekers.
I’m sure those desperate people will feel very protected when they’re forced onto planes and sent to a country that doesn’t even pretend to care about their safety.
There are literally not enough ways to spell out how wrong this legislation is – it’s reactionary, punitive, and completely without humanity. And that’s without even going into detail about the provisions dealing with children, which are – if anything – even worse.
Of course, it has to pass both Houses. The Greens have already unequivocally declared that under no circumstances would they support such amendments. The government’s hopes, then, lie with the Coalition, but it’s not looking promising. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott slammed the proposed changes, and Shadow Climate Spokesperson Greg Hunt criticised the removal of any reference to Australia’s international obligation.
Before we start lauding the Opposition for its apparent defence of ‘basic human decency’ (to quote Abbott), though, it’s worth taking a look at what else it’s saying. You guessed it – Nauru, Nauru, Nauru.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged the Coalition to support the amendments on the basis that if they ever do get into power, they’d be able to send people to Nauru without worrying about legal challenges. The Opposition doesn’t agree – it rejects the government’s legal advice. Nauru can be used right now. Nauru is ‘effective and humane’. The Prime Minister should ‘pick up the phone’.
Of course, the Prime Minister has no intention of doing anything of the kind. The government is committed to the Malaysian ‘five-for-one’ deal, and the proposed amendments are designed to make sure that deal is carried out. The Coalition hates the very idea of Malaysia.
And so we have a stalemate. As long as Malaysia’s on the table, the Coalition doesn’t want to pass the legislation. Worryingly, though, Hunt said that there’s still the possibility of working with the government on further amendments. If those amendments rule out Malaysia, however, the government is unlikely to come to the table.
The government has engaged with the Coalition in a headlong race to the bottom on this issue. If their amendments pass, they’ll have won.
Labor may well be under fire from within its own ranks, however. Labor’s Left faction last week failed to pass a motion requiring the government to return to its own platform, and full onshore processing – but Senator Doug Cameron this morning gave an indication that the faction might well vote against the proposed legislation. Although Cameron told ABC 774 this morning that he was bound by the decisions of the caucus, he pointed out that he was also bound by the national platform. His colleague, Member for Fremantle Melissa Parke, also hinted at a revolt from the Left. The faction meets tonight, ahead of tomorrow’ caucus meeting.
This is an invidious position for the government – wedged from both the Right and the Left. Labor deserves little sympathy, though. Its current predicament is the result of a cascade of bad policy decisions that started when it decided to abandon its own platform in favour of a so-called ‘regional solution’ that was little more than a re-badged Pacific Solution. The error was compounded by the deal with Malaysia – a one-off exchange of 800 asylum seekers for 4000 refugees on which the government pinned all its hopes of ‘stopping the boats’. Given the chance to get itself out of this quagmire by the High Court, it decided instead to simply change the rules. And in its eagerness to appear even tougher on so-called ‘border protection’ than the Coalition, it’s proposed legislation which has nothing to recommend it, and which should be widely and loudly condemned.
If it passes, it won’t stop the boats and it won’t ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. As long as there are people desperate to flee war and persecution, there will be someone with a boat willing to fleece them for all they’re worth. (There will also be someone with a boat willing to give whatever help they can – not all people smugglers are moustache-twirling criminals.) As long as transit countries continue to look the other way upon receipt of a few hefty bribes, those boats will pick up their load of miserable human cargo and set off over the Indian Ocean and get away with it. Changing the Migration Act will do nothing to prevent that.
What will happen if the Act is changed is that the Minister will gain unprecedented power. It will breach Australia’s international obligations. It will confirm to the world that we are a country unwilling to shoulder even a tiny part of the refugee burden. It will show that we are xenophobic, heartless, racist and self-involved to the point where we would rather send people in need into appalling and inhuman situations rather than allow them a place in our community.
And it will make a mockery of our National Anthem – at least, the second verse that hardly anyone ever hears anymore:
‘Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.’
My emphasis. And my reminder – this Australia may be an ideal rather than reality, but it’s an ideal the government would put even further out of reach.
There is still time.
UPDATE: During Question Time today, Gillard was eager to point out that ‘substantial changes’ had been made to the proposed amendments, to assuage concerns that human rights weren’t going to be respected. Just how substantial are these changes?
At first glance, they appear very reassuring. The Minister is directed to ‘have regard’ to whether a proposed country is prepared to assure that asylum seekers will be properly processed and not simply sent on to a country where they won’t be protected. Except … ‘the assurances referred to in paragraph (3)(a) need not be legally binding’.
Gillard seems to think it’s outrageous to suggest that they should. How dare we require a country to bind itself legally to protect the people we send there?
So much for ‘substantial changes’.