The dangers of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’

July 26, 2013

There’s a ‘national emergency’ on our borders. Did you know that? I’m looking at you, beachfront dwellers. Surely you’ve noticed? Have you alerted the appropriate authorities? Laid in supplies? Built barricades and taken up arms?

You haven’t? Tsk. Clearly, you are not Doing Your Bit For The Country. Where is the Spirit of Anzac? Get out there and Support Our Boys!

What’s that, you say? What could possibly be so terrifyingly urgent that it requires us to declare a state of national emergency?

Asylum seeker boats.

Yes, you read that right. Let’s get serious.

Invasion Imminent - according to the Coalition

Invasion Imminent – according to the Coalition

Not to be outdone by the government’s deal with Papua New Guinea, the Coalition has gone one better, releasing its own policy for tackling the asylum seeker issue.

It’s called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and proposes militarising the entire situation.

We’ll get to examining that, but first let’s take a look at the language. It’s probably true to say that many people won’t read past a summary, and perhaps an introduction, and the writers of this document appear to have taken that into account.

In the Introduction alone, the word ‘illegal’ is used five times to describe asylum seeker boats. The Coalition knows very well that it is not illegal to seek asylum in this way, yet has insisted on using the term. It’s difficult to see any reason for that other than to polarise opinion against asylum seekers – and with that underlying its entire argument, the Coalition quickly throws out a plethora of statistics to drive home the point that Australia is, effectively, under attack. These statistics look impressive, but what’s really going on here?

There’s a comparison between boat arrivals in 2007 and today. That’s it; just the raw numbers. There’s no reference to the changing global situation, the incredibly slow processing time for people in camps, nor, indeed, the fact that people are often not safe even within these camps. The so-called ‘push’ factors that prompt people are entirely glossed over.

There’s a reference to the ‘queue’, with boat arrivals virtually declared not to be genuine refugees before any processing has taken place. Rather, the Coalition asserts that they are simply cashed-up and selfish:

‘These people [in camps] are genuine refugees … denied a chance at resettlement by people who have money in their pocket’.

Of course, there is no acknowledgement that linking irregular maritime arrivals with our humanitarian intake was a political move instituted by the former Howard government, completely out of the hands of asylum seekers.

There are large dollar amounts mentioned, all apparently wasteful spending on failed policies. This money, the Coalition suggests, should have been spent on causes far more deserving, such as education, infrastructure, and hospitals. Again, we have the argument that in some way, asylum seekers are responsibly for denying people their ‘rightful’ portion – this time, Australians themselves. This is dogwhistling of an almost deafening sort; it appeals to the basest, most insecure feelings in the electorate, planting the seed of fear that somehow we – and our children – will suffer if we don’t do something to stop it.

Oh, and let’s not forget the numbers of drownings at sea. Of course, any death at sea is a terrible thing, but the Coalition would have us believe that these are entirely the government’s fault. What it doesn’t want people to remember are disasters like the loss of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, resulting in the death of 353 people, or the sinking of SIEV 4 due to the strain of being towed – after shots were fired across its bow. Both these events happened on a Coalition government’s watch, and, to some extent, we contributed to them.

Having bombarded us with statistics, the Coalition gives us the meat of its policy. It boils down to this:

A single, ‘3-star ranking’ military commander would be in charge of dealing with asylum seeker boats. This commander is to be appointed by the Chief of the Defence Force, and report directly to the Minister for Immigration. An extraordinary amount of power would be concentrated in the hands of the commander, who would command a Task Force drawn from no less than 16 agencies, including six ministries and Australia’s intelligence agencies.

The Coalition offers this justification for such a move:

‘The scale of this problem requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation’.

Because there’s nothing more terrifying and dangerous to Australian security than a boat crammed full of unarmed men, women and children risking their lives, right?

To really drive home the point, ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ would be overseen by the National Security Committee. It’s a neat piece of reasoning – we tell you it’s a national emergency, we wrap it up in khaki and paranoia, and we sell it to you as something not only necessary, but actually good.

And what would this commander and his task force actually do?

First, there’s the question of detention. The Coalition spent quite a bit of media time last week asserting that it would never ‘outsource’ processing of asylum seekers. That seems to have disappeared into the ether, as this new policy commits to using both Nauru and Manus Island, and to ‘ensure resettlement in Australia is not guaranteed’. Remember, only last week, Manus Island, and Papua New Guinea in general, were apparently not fit to house anyone.

Temporary Protection Visas get a look-in, as does denying family reunions. Just in case that isn’t tough enough, the Coalition would also completely refuse to process anyone they even suspect might have destroyed identifying documents. There is no presumption of innocence here. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker to convince officials that, if they don’t have papers, it’s for a good reason.

Where the policy gets really disturbing, however, is in the greatly expanded role of the Navy. The Coalition have long trumpeted its ‘tow back the boats’ policy. It’s still there, but with a few twists. Not only would the Navy be instructed to intercept boats in our own waters, but also to intercept and board vessels outside our sea borders, particularly if that vessel was thought to originate from Sri Lanka (note: not ships registered in Sri Lanka, merely leaving its waters). If asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were found on such a vessel, they would be forcibly removed and sent back immediately.

There is no end to the issues that this raises. Leaving aside the fact that Indonesia has repeatedly said they would not accept boats towed back to their territorial waters and dumped there, what the Coalition proposes has the potential to affect our relations with countries both in the region, and globally.

Boarding a vessel in international waters (the so-called ‘high seas’) is problematic, to say the least. It’s an act that can only legally be undertaken in extreme circumstances, prescribed by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), to which Australia is a signatory nation. Part VII spells out the limits of action – including the right of any ship not engaged in illegal acts to undertake ‘innocent passage’. To do otherwise could be called piracy. It could also be called an aggressive act against a sovereign nation. And the Coalition wants to use our Navy to commit these acts against unarmed, helpless civilians.

Alarm bells were certainly ringing at the Australian Defence Force when this policy booklet hit the internet. General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force quickly tweeted:

The ADA later released a statement on the policy. In the clearest possible terms, it stated that the ADF believed that asylum seeker arrivals were unequivocally a civil law enforcement matter. It went on to assert that military intervention should only be called upon in a ‘real emergency’, and that party politics had no place in military matters.

‘There is surely no need for the measures described in Operation Sovereign Borders to be led by a military officer, either on secondment or as part of his or her military duties directly.’

As if that weren’t enough to unravel the policy, the ADA statement went on to point out that the Coalition’s plans – particularly in terms of altering the chain of command and putting a civilian in charge of operational matters – may well be in breach of Westminster conventions, the Defence Act and the Constitution.

There are serious problems with the Coalition’s policy that go beyond issues of whether we should have ‘picked up the phone to Nauru’ or taken into account that Indonesia might object to a policy designed to deter asylum seekers from leaving their shores. What the Coalition proposes is nothing less than turning the military into an arm of civil law enforcement, using it to commit acts that not only breach our responsibilities under the LOSC, but could potentially cause diplomatic incidents with both our near neighbours and other countries around the world.

There was a great deal of derisive laughter when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggested the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy (at the time, reduced to a few motherhood statements) might lead to diplomatic conflict.

I doubt many people are laughing at that idea now.


Going behind the hysteria to examine the PNG deal

July 20, 2013

Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia and Papua New Guinea had entered into a Regional Refugee Agreement, to address the issue of boat-borne asylum seekers.

In a joint media conference, Rudd spelled out the plan. Asylum boats will be intercepted as usual, taken to Christmas Island for preliminary processing (medical and security checks), then moved to the Manus Island detention facility for refugee assessment under UN protocols and supervision. Those deemed to be genuine refugees under the UN convention will either be settled in PNG, or in a third country. Those who do not meet the refugee criteria will be deported to their home countries or – if that was not possible – to another country. No refugee processed on Manus would be resettled in Australia.

In return, Australia will increase its humanitarian intake, upgrade and expand the Manus detention centre, and significantly invest in PNG infrastructure. There is no cap on the number of asylum seekers who may be processed through Manus.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that media – mainstream, independent and social – figuratively exploded as this announcement rolled out. The overwhelming reaction was negative. People swore that the ALP had forever lost their vote, that Rudd was showing his racist colours, that he was just using the plight of people to win an election. It was, in short, hysterical.

Over the years, I’ve condemned hardline policies relating to asylum seeker issues, regardless of their origin. At its base, this is a human issue. Not a political one. There are human beings involved, who are fleeing for their lives and seeking a safe haven. There is nothing dangerous about that – those who bleat about ‘border security’ and ‘protection’ deliberately play on fears and insecurities that have nothing to do with the people who become victims all over again just for wanting safety for themselves and their families.

But – and here’s the thing – there is an issue here. Not that there are hordes arriving on our shores to take our jobs and threaten our wimmins, all while turning us into Muslims with their sneaky ways (thank you, Senator Bernardi). The issue is that, no matter what, people are still putting themselves in the hands of criminals who have no interest in preserving life once money has changed hands. And people are dying at sea. Nothing – nothing – has changed that; not relaxing entry requirements, threatening to send people to Malaysia, or actually sending them to Nauru.

So, with that in mind, I took a look at this arrangement between Australian and Papua New Guinea.

Before moving on to discuss the Agreement in detail, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.

1. Australia has not ‘slammed the door on refugees’, despite the incendiary headlines of today’s Age.

The RRA does not apply to those who are deemed refugees using normal channels, only those who arrive by boat (or who are intercepted on their way here). We still have a humanitarian intake and resettlement, which was increased last year by 6000, with further increases flagged over time.

That this is painfully obvious, and yet apparently ignored by those reporting the story in the media, smacks of nothing more than scare-mongering for the purposes of ratings and profit. It’s completely irresponsible to suggest that this RRA would let to Australia refusing any refugees.

2. The RRA is not a reinstatement of the infamous ‘White Australia’ policy.

Where do I start, with this one? It’s so ridiculous it shouldn’t have to be addressed – yet social media is full of cries to the effect that the RRA constitutes racial profiling, as part of an official policy to deny ‘brown-skinned’ people a place in Australian society. This is nothing more than an assertion – there isn’t a shred of evidence to back it up. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest otherwise.

Under the White Australia policy, would-be immigrants (note: not refugees) who did not conform to a certain ‘Britishness’ (or, at least, northern European Anglophones), were either denied entry altogether, or required to pass prohibitively difficult tests. Some of these tests were deliberately administered in a language unknown to the person seeking entry, virtually guaranteeing that they would fail. The choice of language for these tests was at the discretion of the administering officer.

The abolition of this policy, over time and by both Left and Right leaning governments, is one of Australia’s great achievements. That is absolutely undeniable. But to suggest that the RRA with Papua New Guinea seeks to reinstate it ignores – wilfully ignores – a number of facts.

As mentioned above, we still have a humanitarian refugee intake. Refugees are not immigrants in the usual sense. They are people fleeing unbearable conditions in their own countries, seeking resettlement elsewhere. Determination of refugee status is made according to certain conventions set down by the UN and agreed to by signatories.

Additionally – and surely this should not have to be pointed out – the overwhelming majority of people granted refugee status are not ‘white’ in any sense of the word. Refugees resettled here tend to be Iraqi, Afghani, Somali, or Tamil – and will likely continue to be, until conditions in their home countries change drastically. They are not about to be denied refugee status on the basis of their ethnicity.

3. The RRA is not purely an ‘election quick-fix’ (The Age editorial notwithstanding).

Now, there’s no doubt that this arrangement with Papua New Guinea cuts the legs out from under the Coalition’s stated intentions towards asylum seekers. It is likely to provide some deterrent for those who might otherwise fall prey to people smugglers’ assurances of resettlement and citizenship. (And the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has wasted no time in spreading that message far and wide, with posters popping up all over asylum seeker support pages on Facebook.) It has the advantage of being a signed agreement, rather than a simple, unilateral announcement – and there is detail available, which is more than could be said for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’.

That said, all those potential election benefits also have substantial effects. This is not merely a case of trading slogans. It’s arguable that the government is participating in a race to the bottom, but this is nothing new where asylum seekers are concerned. They have been pawns for years now, for all sides of politics. The real issue is policy itself.

So, if the RRA is neither a slammed door nor a new White Australia policy, what is it?

Our Navy and Coast Guard will still patrol for boats, and still escort them to Christmas Island. Asylum seekers who have come by boat will still be held in offshore detention, pending processing. Refugees will be resettled. The difference? Where those refugees – and only those refugees – will end up.

There are, however, real concerns with this agreement.

First, it begs the question of why we need offshore detention in the first place. So-called ‘pull factors’ have never been properly demonstrated. Despite the Coalition’s oft-repeated assertions, there is no proof that the Pacific Solution ‘stopped’ anything. There was a drop in boat arrivals, but in the global context, that is more likely attributable to the situation in home and transit countries. The difference between the Pacific Solution and the RRA is that it absolutely rules out resettlement in Australia. If boats drop in number once the RRA is in place, that may show that having Australia as a destination is, indeed a pull factor.

Second, the state of the Manus detention facility. To put it bluntly, it’s a dump. The housing is temporary, there are pools of stagnant water all over the camp (creating a malaria risk), and as late as July 12 this year, the UNHCR stated that the centre did not meet international standards.

Australia has pledged to spend whatever is necessary to make the permanent facility both up to standard, and able to handle up to 6000 people. And this brings us back to the earlier problem; if we’re prepared to spend that much money (and invest in PNG’s infrastructure) to keep people out of the country, why not spend money to refurbish, expand or even build new centres on the mainland? (Leaving aside, of course, the utterly insupportable decision to excise the mainland from our Migration Zone.)

Rudd’s answer is likely to be that this is a regional issue, deserving of a regional solution. That’s true enough – but is this the best we can do? The government proposes that Australia play the dual roles of bank and conference organiser. Both are undeniably important, but should we be expecting PNG – a country which we will have to prop up financially – to do most of the work for us?

The RRA may well stop boats leaving Indonesia – or, at least, preserve a status quo when it comes to our Navy and Coast Guard. Certainly, it’s nullified the issue where the Coalition is concerned – and the Greens, for all their passion, still have little detail to support them beyond assertions that we should expand our humanitarian refugee intake and restore the family reunion program. Politically, it’s a win. For all the rhetoric, Labor are unlikely to lose many votes with this agreement.

Morally, though? There are real questions that need to be answered, not least of which is: at what point did we decide we would no longer even consider processing boat-borne refugees – any refugees – on our own land?

That’s what is important here. Not hysteria, not deliberately misleading headlines, not hodge-podge rallies responding with the speed of a knee-jerk to a few bullet points.

Asking the right questions. Calmly, implacably, and constantly.


Husic’s oath a cause for celebration, not abuse

July 2, 2013

Prime Minister Rudd’s new cabinet was announced and sworn in yesterday. Though there were few surprises, there were several appointments of note – and one who attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese picked up the Communications portfolio in addition to his current responsibilities for Infrastructure and Transport. This is a natural, and very clever move. The NBN is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in our history, and Albanese is a practised debater with a proven ability to think on his feet. You couldn’t find a better advocate for what will undoubtedly be a major plank in Labor’s election campaign.

Mark Butler, who’s perceived to be somewhat above the usual gutter-level politics of day to day governing, moves from Mental Health and Ageing to Climate Change and Environment. It’s a major step up for Butler, but his appointment conveys the message that the portfolio is in safe – and, perhaps more importantly, untainted hands.

There are 11 women in Rudd’s cabinet, including a number who enter the ministry for the first time, such as Melissa Parke, who heads up the newly created International Development portfolio. Given Rudd’s emphasis on engagement with the Pacific Region, and China in particular, this is a major responsibility.

Inevitably, those who supported Rudd all the way along were rewarded. Recent convert Bill Shorten picked up Education along with Workplace Relations; and far be it from me to suggest that there’s more than a little irony in his taking on almost identical responsibilities to those first held by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the first Rudd cabinet. Encouragingly, though, many of those who held ministries under Gillard retained those positions (such as Penny Wong with Finance), or were reshuffled (O’Connor moving from Immigration to Employment).

It’s a new cabinet, with very little time for a shake-down cruise. Far from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s sneer that this is ‘not the B team, it’s the C team,’ however, more than half of Rudd’s ministers are extremely experienced, both as politicians and in various portfolios, many of those major areas of responsibility. Their expertise will be available to new ministers, who will also be ably served by their departments.

The transition to the new cabinet went off without a hitch. The swearing-in ceremony is a formality at best; though technically able to do so, a Governor-General is hardly likely to object to any appointments. Usually, the new minister reads out a Christian oath or secular affirmation and signs a copy of said oath, which is then witnessed and proclaimed by the Governor-General. Yesterday, something new happened.

For the first time, an Australian cabinet minister swore their oath upon the Koran.

The person in question was Ed Husic, new Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and for Broadband. At his election in 2010, he was the first Muslim to enter Parliament, and took his oath alongside Jewish MPs Josh Frydenberg and Michael Danby (who swore on what The Age fatuously called ‘the Jewish bible’).

The evening news reported Husic’s use of the Koran in a relatively neutral way, commenting on it as a curiosity more than anything else. Social media was more polarised. Husic’s Facebook page became a battleground for religious commentary that went far beyond general argument, and entered the realm of personal abuse directed at the MP.

With the breathtaking arrogance that seems to accompany only the truly uninformed, Husic was told: that it was ‘impossible’ for him to take that oath, since Islam and democracy were completely incompatible; that he was committing ‘treason’; that his appointment was un-Constitutional; that he’s not a ‘real’ Muslim, so shouldn’t use the Koran; that he was exploiting Australia for his own (no doubt nefarious) purposes; and – at the height of the absurdity – that Husic’s appointment meant sharia law was on the verge of being instituted.

This is why we can’t have nice things, Australia.

Husic made a decision to take his oath of office upon the holy book of his religion – which he was perfectly entitled to do. Nothing in our Constitution prohibits that, despite those amateur Constitutional Scholars who quoted s.116 as justification for their ranting. That particular section guarantees that the government may not establish a religion, nor impose a religious test for office. No minister is required to make an oath upon a religious text – they always have the option of taking a secular affirmation.

The notion that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply shows the ignorance of those asserting such nonsense. Islam is a religion; it is not a political system. Whether it is the dominant religion within a country may influence the politics, but there is a world of difference between that and a theocracy.

As for the accusation of the country being on the verge of the sudden imposition of sharia law – well, really. There’s ridiculous, and then there’s the kind of idiocy that leaves one open-mouthed with awe. This is on a par with Senators Cory Bernardi and Mitch Fifield thundering that we are being ‘forced’ into eating halal meat, leading to ‘Islamisation-by-stealth’ of our ‘Christian’ country. According to the wingnuts on Husic’s Facebook page, however, our way of life is in danger. Oh, and apparently shows just how low Rudd is willing to go.

I confess, that one escapes me. Perhaps the poster was suggesting that Husic has secret powers over ‘The Muslims’, and will instruct them all to vote for Rudd in the upcoming election – on the condition that Rudd will bring in sharia law as soon as he takes office?

That Husic’s appointment as a Parliamentary Secretary should provoke such bigotry is perhaps not surprising, although it is disgusting – and shows just how far we have to go.

The election of an indigenous person to Parliament was a moment of celebration, lauded by all comers – and rightly so. Politicians often trot out their children-of-migrants credentials, telling fond anecdotes about when their parents first came to this country. People, apparently, like to feel that they have something in common with their representatives. Unless they’re Muslim, I guess. Oh, it was fine for Husic to be a Muslim while he was a lowly backbencher, but in the cabinet? That’s going too far.

There’s more than a whiff of tokenism about that, a sense that Australian Muslims should be satisfied with having someone in Parliament who’s ‘one of them’ (never mind that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion with many sects and diverging beliefs). What more do ‘they’ want?

I don’t know about what ‘they’ want, but what we should want is more diversity. More voices bringing different perspectives, different heritages, different ideas. We should celebrate the fact that Husic felt he could show his commitment to serving us by taking the oath on his religion’s holy book, as we should celebrate others who take affirmations or swear on other sacred texts.

Diversity does not dilute; it enriches. It allows us to embrace what is new, while affirming traditions that continue to serve us well. In doing so, we become a stronger, more compassionate nation.

Congratulations on your appointment, Mr Husic.


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