There was an opportunity. The government was given a real chance by the High Court to regain some of its lost ground against the Coalition. More to the point, it had the chance to regain some shred of humanity and compassion. It could have used the High Court decision to jettison the whole idea of offshore processing once and for all. Certainly, that’s what the Left of the ALP – and increasing numbers of the Australian public – wanted.
The government isn’t interested. It’s wedded to the idea that sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia – a country with a terrible human rights record, who won’t sign any agreement that forces them to comply with human rights considerations – is the only possible way to ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. Accordingly, it’s decided that the best thing it can do is change the Migration Act so that no pesky High Court can get in its way next time.
Ah, the convenience of legislation. Want to do something reprehensible that’s condemned by international organisations and banned by the judiciary? Just change the law. Then you can do what you want. Never mind that it’s ultimately a useless gesture, since it’s capped at 800. Never mind that it contravenes long-standing Labor policy. Never mind that in doing so, Australia will undermine its position as a signatory of the Refugee Conventions. Never mind that this is a gross abuse of power. If it means the government can get those 800 people packed onto planes and out of sight, they’ll do it.
And that’s exactly what they took to Caucus yesterday. Despite an attempt by Left faction leader Senator Doug Cameron to win a vote calling for onshore processing, ‘over half’ of the Caucus voted to change the Migration Act instead. The government plans to make sure that there cannot be any legal impediment to sending asylum seekers offshore. Additionally, it wants to change the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act, so it can shirk its responsibilities under the Refugee Conventions by doing the same to unaccompanied minors.
This is the equivalent of a child throwing a tantrum when the rules say he’s out of the game. Anyone with kids has probably seen it – first there’s an attempt to bluster, then negotiate, then bully, and finally the child is left with two options. He can take his bat and ball and go home, or he can decide that the game has new rules.
‘Bang bang! I shot you, you’re dead!’
‘Did not, missed me!’
‘Did too, you’re dead!’
‘It’s my game and I say I’m not dead, so ner!’
Behold … your elected representatives in their full glory.
The Greens won’t support any change to the Migration Act. They were out in front of the media so quickly that the initial stories on the government’s plan had barely been filed. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was particularly scathing; as far as the Greens are concerned, the government would be breaching its UN obligations.
To get the amendments passed, then, the government needs the support of the Coalition. To that end, they offered Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a briefing on the legal implications of the High Court judgment – a briefing advising him that both Nauru and Manus Island as alternative offshore destinations were also ruled out by the High Court decision. The idea was to convince him to support the amendments when they come before the Parliament, on the grounds that if Abbott ever became Prime Minister, it would benefit him just as much as the current governments.
But there’s a sticking point for Abbott, apparently. The government has no intention of using an amended Act for anything but the resurrection of its Malaysian deal. And Abbott has no intention of letting the government off the hook on the subject of re-opening the Nauru processing centre. The consistent message coming out of the Opposition is that Nauru is the only possible solution.
Gillard’s having none of that, though. When asked this morning, she said, ‘Going to Nauru is the equivalent of getting a ticket to Australia’, and quoted figures showing how many Nauru detainees ended up settling in Australia when their refugee claims were approved.
And there you have it. Despite constant avowals of how ‘humanitarian’ the government is, despite claims of being ‘compassionate’, the Prime Minister let the truth slip out. The government’s declared intent is to keep refugees away from Australia at all costs. (Oh, unless someone else has already done the hard work of processing asylum seeker claims, of course.) And why? Because if they’re here in Australia, they’re entitled to the protection of law – again, thanks to the High Court.
You’d think the Coalition would be on board with that, given the kind of responses given by Abbott and his front-benchers in interviews on the subject. Judging by the speeches they made in the House today, however, Abbott wants no part of any bipartisan effort to entrench executive power in this particular area. It’s a curious stance – surely it would benefit them?
Perhaps Abbott’s holding out in the hope that Gillard will finally cave in and re-open Nauru. Perhaps he’s trying to wring as many concessions as possible out of the government, including an admission that the government needs the Coalition to get them out of a gigantic mess. Or perhaps Abbott’s decided that he can always change the Act later, and he can get a far better result by watching the government fail to get amendments through the Parliament.
With any luck, pride will undo both major parties. The longer each refuses to budge on exactly which country it wants to use as a ‘dump and forget’ centre for our asylum seekers, the harder it will be to reach any kind of deal.
In the meantime, the Coalition is merrily pushing the line that with the Malaysia deal scuttled, Australia has ‘no border protection policy’. Yes, that’s right, folks – any moment now the boats will pull up on St Kilda Beach or surf into Bondi, and we’ll be invaded by thousands of asylum seekers who will force us to eat halal meat and wear burqas. Quick, circle the wagons, hide the women and the silver!
It’s ludicrous. Of course Australia has an asylum seeker policy (and no, I won’t play into the scare-mongering by calling it ‘border protection’). We have a policy of intercepting boats. We have a policy of mandatory detention. We have a processing centre on Christmas Island – which, let’s not forget, is excised from our Migration Zone anyway. We have processing centres onshore. We have an entire bureaucracy that works with the UN to process refugees then re-settle or deport them according to the outcome of their cases.
But it’s much better for the Coalition if it can create the impression that there is a complete policy void in this area. It plays right into the hands of the panic-mongers who seem to think that people in boats somehow threaten our very way of life. And it allows the Coalition to continue pushing Nauru as the tried-and-true ‘solution’ which is the only way to save us from a terrible fate.
And the media is utterly complicit in this.
Think about it. How often, lately, have you heard a commentator or reporter say that there’s ‘no border protection policy’?
And while we’re at it – when was the last time you heard someone in the media flat-out ask a politician exactly why we can’t have onshore processing? Given that it’s been in place for decades and – political rhetoric notwithstanding – has never been shown to encourage either people smuggling or people seeking asylum, why isn’t anyone nailing politicians in place and forcing them to answer this? Not often, I’ll bet.
Here are a few questions they could ask:
What evidence do you have that Australia’s long history of onshore refugee processing directly increased the number of asylum seeker boats?
Why are you prepared to spend millions of dollars in a third country, and risk Australia’s international reputation, rather than convert a few abandoned military bases onshore?
Exactly what is so frightening about asylum seekers that they must be kept away from Australia at all costs?
Why do you persist in referring to asylum seekers as a ‘product’ peddled by people smugglers, instead of calling them what they are – human beings?
Why do you persist in employing punitive measures against desperate people, and calling it ‘compassionate’?
If you really want to ‘break the people smugglers’ business model’, why don’t you simply fly asylum seekers to processing centres? You could save millions currently spent on keeping up the Coast Guard and Navy presence and detaining and prosecuting people smugglers – and the people smugglers wouldn’t be able to make any profit from the misery of others.
You see, it doesn’t matter what you believe on this issue – these questions should be asked. Politicians should be held to account for what they say, and required to show evidence to justify their policy decisions. This is what news media are for – asking uncomfortable questions and demanding real answers, investigating all sides of a question and providing that information to the public.
At the moment, this just isn’t happening. As long as media continue to unquestioningly accept politicians’ talking points, it never will.
We can see it happening right in front of us with the asylum seeker issue. So how about it, media – think you might want to stop letting politicians control the message and start subjecting them all to unwavering close scrutiny? There’s still time. The opportunity’s been missed, but not lost. If we’re going to have this conversation, then let’s talk about all the options.
If you do, then maybe – just maybe – the people who risk their lives to flee to a country where they can be safe and free, might actually find that country.
I’m sure it’s buried here somewhere under all the politics …