Treasurers’ debates. They’re not usually exciting, and this was no exception. Nonetheless, this face-off by Chris Bowen and Joe Hockey wasn’t just duelling numbers or trading slogans. There were a few surprises.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all.
In a week where Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop trivialised fear and suffering, Four Corners embarrassed itself with possibly the worst beat-up yet screened on the so-called ‘Labor leadership tensions’ and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott repeatedly ascribed apparent powers of time travel to the not-yet-implemented carbon pricing scheme, it was something of a relief when Parliament rose yesterday.
But then there was this.
In what might be charitably described as the most revolting and prejudicial piece of muckraking journalism since Scott Morrison was invited to complain about the injustice of letting refugees attend funerals on Christmas Island, today’s Daily Telegraph tried to whip up its readers into a frenzy of envy and righteous indignation. Its target? Asylum seekers. Specifically, the amount of money being spent on readying homes for community detention and helping families set up a new life in Australia.
The headline was a bit of a give-away, really. The article, written by Gemma Jones, was worse – thinly-veiled racist sentiment disguised as appeals for a ‘fair go’ for our celebrated ‘working families’.
You see, these asylum seekers are getting a big ol’ hand-out. They get places to live, beds to sleep in, medical treatment, and even food. It’s … it’s … outrageous! We’re doing it hard right now, on our $180,000 a year incomes, and soon we’ll have to pay for our own health insurance! Not to mention the evil ‘carbon tax’! No wonder there’s an armada of boats on our horizon!
Mike Stuchbery took on the racism in brilliant, scathing style, exposing the truly ugly face that lies behind the fake concern for ‘fairness’. I cannot recommend his article highly enough – but maybe have a soothing cup of tea to hand. You’ll need it.
I wanted to take a closer look at the claims made in the Telegraph, though. So here’s a reality check.
First the claims, and their nasty implications.
There are 97 homes scattered around suburban Sydney (Ashfield, Bankstown, Cabramatta, etc) that the government is in the process of setting up for community detention. The rent on these homes averages $416 a week. Phone and electricity connections will be covered.
The government’s spending around $10,000 to set up these homes, buying every from fridges to coathangers to plasma televisions.
Every family moving in will get a package of goods worth around $7100 (for a family of five). That package includes a hamper containing milk, bread, butter, cleaning products and ‘essentials’ (air quotes courtesy the Tele. If they’ve got more kids, they’ll get more money. And if they have a baby, they’ll get a $750 pack of basic supplies.
Along with all that luxury, detainees may ask to have certain other items considered: bikes, rollerblades, computers, internet access, iPods, etc.
On top of everything, they get a benefit, free medical, dental and pharmaceutical treatment, and free education.
All of which is paid for by you, the working taxpayer. You’re helping these people live high on the hog so they can kick back and watch DVDs while you struggle to put food on the table.
And now, a little reality.
Let’s get to the ‘luxuries’. The Tele helpfully furnished us with a list, so I’ve done a bit of research on the government’s apparent extravagance, looking for mid-range items without bulk or commercial discounts. White goods mentioned in the article were sourced from the Good Guys. Furniture was source from Fantastic Furniture. And then I compared these costs with my own home. For the record, we’re a family of four earning approximately 50% above the average national wage.
A mid-range, 8 kg washing machine was $807. Ours cost us $1400.
A microwave oven was $207. It’s been a while, but it was around the same price for us.
A DVD player (or in this case, a DVD/HDD player/record) was $188). We don’t have one of these anymore – we upgraded to using a computer media centre.
A reasonably sized side-by-side refrigerator/freezer was was $1874. That’s about what we paid.
The article listed an alarm clock radio. I had to go to Harvey Norman to find that one – for a whopping $27. In fact, this is exactly the same model I bought for my kids last Christmas.
As for the plasma television, I had to look high and low to find a price on a television this size. Eventually I found this one for $369. It’s worth pointing out that if you’re reading this blog on a desktop computer, your monitor is probably the same size as this ‘luxury’. Our own TV is around 42 inches, and cost us nearly $1000 when we got it on sale.
And you can’t buy an old-style, CRT television for love nor money these days.
And now for the furniture, which the Tele helpfully tells us includes mattresses, lounges, coathangers and ‘containers for biscuits. I assumed that the government didn’t actually expect detainees to sleep on the floor, and included bed frames, drawers, coffee tables, and the usual accessories.
The most expensive queen bedroom package at Fantastic Furniture costs $1499; a comparable single bedroom package is $769). By contrast, my last mattress cost nearly $2000 and the bed frame $1000. So, even before factoring in the two bedside tables ($300 each) and the tallboy ($800), that’s twice the price.
I don’t really need to go into detail about my kids’ loft beds and mattresses, do I?
Moving into the living areas, the most expensive ‘home starter’ package costs $4999).
Now, we just bought a new lounge suite. It was an exciting moment in our house, since we haven’t had a new one since … well, ever. It cost us $2500. Add to that an entertainment unit, coffee table, side tables, dining table and chairs … you see where this is going, right?
Moving on to the heights of absurdity … we buy our coat hangers from Coles, and it usually costs us $12-15 for a box of 20 wooden ones. A biscuit container can cost anything from $10.00 for Decor plastic ware, to over $100 for specialist earthenware from a big-name brand. I’m guessing the government isn’t springing for Waterford Crystal.
Then there’s the welfare. As Immigration Minister Chris Bowen points out, asylum seekers are not permitted to work while their claims are processed. Some support is necessary, and this is on a par with pensions. Asylum seekers often arrive with untreated medical conditions, some quite serious. Is the Tele really suggesting they not receive care?
And let’s not forget the ‘welcome hamper’, which the Tele seems to think contains the rough equivalent of a magnum of Moet, pate de foie gras and caviar. The hamper actually contains the very basics of setting up a home, for goodness’ sake. We give more to our kids when they move out for the first time! I did visit Coles Online to source some prices – but honestly, it’s not worth it. The claim that giving people these items is in some way a terrible thing is just not worth dignifying with that much work. Ditto the baby supplies.
But hold up a second: none of that matters, because here’s the real kicker.
Almost all of the costs cited by the Tele are for the initial establishment of rental homes that will be used by multiple families. These people will be in community detention. They will have to move out when their claims are processed. Quoting Bowen, again: ‘People do not keep the goods, they remain in a house when a family moves out and are used by the next people who move in.’
And the rest of the costs? Are the least we can do. Is the Tele honestly suggesting that we shouldn’t pay for basic set-up supplies for people who arrive on our shores with nothing more than the clothes on their backs? That we shouldn’t buy nappies for babies?
The article is beyond misleading. It is vicious rabble-rousing guaranteed to stir up fear and resentment against some of the most vulnerable people in the country. A little basic fact-checking shows that this is not a case of wasteful government spending, pork-barrelling or any other type of mismanagement or corruption. Did no one think to do this? Or did they just decide that the sensation value outweighed any petty concerns like facts?
What sickens me is the creeping suspicion that this is exactly what the Daily Telegraph did. That they made the cynical, reprehensible decision to publish this article because they knew it would appeal to the most mean-spirited impulses in Australian people. And therefore make them money from sales and advertising.
And if the cries to ‘stop the boats’ get louder? If the already inhumane treatment of the majority of detainees becomes worse as a result of politicians grabbing for votes? If a few more asylum seekers are spat on in the streets, subjected to racist bullying and outright violence from those who feel they’re ‘getting it easy’?
That’s not the Tele’s problem, is it? They just print the news. And if something bad comes of anything they produce? That’ll be a good story. Of course, it won’t be their fault.
Well, here’s some breaking news for you, News Limited. You are not printing news. You’re making it up. You are not producing good journalism. You’re pandering to the lowest impulses in human nature. You are not informing the public. You’re taking advantage of people’s trust in news services (and yes, people do still trust the mainstream media, goodness knows why) to lie to them and encourage them to adopt a xenophobic mob mentality.
You’re a disgrace to news production. Gemma Jones is a disgrace to her profession. And every sub-editor, fact-checker or proof-reader who let that article go through is complicit.
And you won’t get away with it for much longer, if there’s any justice left in the world.
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’.
The Full Bench of the High Court has ruled 5-2 in favour of the asylum seekers slated for Malaysia as part of Gillard’s deal.
The injunction prohibiting their removal from Australia is now permanent.
The High Court, expediting their decision, ruled that asylum seekers cannot be processed offshore unless the Minister for Immigration can demonstrate that human rights will be protected in accordance with section 198A of the Immigration Act. The Minister cannot simply declare a country has adequate human rights protections – he must demonstrate it.
By implication, this could rule out any country which is not a signatory to UN Conventions on Refugees – including Nauru and Manus Island. The Court did not specifically rule on this, however.
Unaccompanied minors cannot be sent offshore for processing unless an additional written consent is issued by the Minister.
No appeal is possible to this decision.
The Malaysia ‘one for five’ deal is, at this point, dead in the water.
It’s a huge win for opponents of offshore detention, and a massive blow to the government. At every turn, it has been thwarted in efforts to ship the asylum seeker’ problem’ out of sight and (presumably) out of mind. Right now, the government is in a bind – but they have a couple of options open to them.
They can attempt to amend the Migration Act in order to water down s. 198A – effectively removing clause 3(iv), which currently requires that any proposed offshore destination ‘meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection‘. (my emphasis)
In the current political climate, this would be an uphill battle at best. The Greens will vehemently oppose any attempt to remove human rights from the legislation, and it’s a fair bet that Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott would do likewise. The government’s only hope, then, would be to enlist the Coalition’s support.
It’s a possibility. This ruling hurts the Coalition as much as it does the government, since the Opposition’s own asylum seeker policy hinges entirely on re-opening the Nauru detention centre built with Australian money under the Howard administration. It might well serve their interests to throw in with the government – although it would significantly weaken them, given their frequent declarations that no good policy or legislation has ever come out of the Gillard government. With enough spin, they might succeed in convincing the public that they’ve had to step in to ‘rescue’ bad policy, but it would be a very risky move.
The government’s other option is to return to the policies espoused under the Rudd government, processing asylum seekers either onshore or on Christmas Island. The Opposition consistently attacked these ideas, blaming them for a surge in boat arrivals. The night before he was forced to resign, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cautioned against any ‘surge to the Right’ in this area. Julia Gillard’s actions since assuming the officer of Prime Minister, however, have taken Labor closer and closer to the Coalition’s hardline stance.
There is an opportunity now for the Gillard government to abandon the offshore system altogether, using the High Court ruling as a shelter against criticisms of ‘backflip’. Minister Chris Bowen could claim that his hand was forced by the judiciary. That, however, assumes that the government does not, in fact, wholeheartedly support offshore detention and similar harsh measures.
We’ve yet to hear from the government, and have no idea when it will make an announcement. At this point, it’s all speculation as to what they might do next. If you have a recommendation for them, I urge you to email your local MP, Minister Bowen and/or Prime Minister Gillard. You can be sure that certain groups on both sides of the issue are already doing so. Don’t let them give the government the impression they speak for you.
In the meantime, this is a decision worthy of celebration. The dreadful plan to send asylum seekers to a country where they would be completely unprotected by even lip service to human rights conventions is absolutely blocked. For now, at least, Australia has regained a little compassion.
It’s shameful that we needed the Full Bench of the High Court to force us to do that.
Last night David Manne, from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, went to the High Court. He represented 42 asylum seekers, including six unaccompanied minors. Of that group, sixteen faced imminent deportation to Malaysia as part of the government’s ‘one-for-five’ swap deal.
Arguing that the asylum seekers were reasonably afraid for their safety and welfare, and had a right to have their claims assessed in Australia, Manne’s legal team secured an emergency injunction to prevent their being removed until after a further hearing this afternoon.
It’s just been announced that the High Court has upheld that initial injunction, extending it until August 22. This means that any asylum seekers slated for deportation now have quite a bit more breathing space to organise their legal responses. And when they do go back to court, it will be before the Full Bench – the highest court in Australia.
Given that the decision noted that there were ‘serious questions’ to answer regarding Australia’s legal obligations under international treaties, and concern for human rights, it also means that the government now finds itself effectively stymied.
It’s not giving up, by any means. Even before this afternoon’s hearing, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was out talking tough. The government has no intention of changing its policy. Malaysia doesn’t need to be a signatory to the UN Conventions, it’s told us that human rights will be looked after, that’s good enough. After all, what’s important is that we send the right signal to the people smugglers.
Once in the court, the government didn’t get its papers in order, causing a delay in the proceedings. When the Justice indicated he wanted to extend the order pending a full hearing, the government argued that it should be as short an extension as possible, because otherwise it would – you guessed it – send a signal. Presumably, the wrong kind of signal.
Thankfully, the Court rejected that argument and delivered a slap to the government for being unprepared and then trying to rush things.
But take a look at how the government acted here. This is the same kind of contempt for the Courts that Howard’s government displayed during the days of the Tampa and the Pacific Solution. Worse, it’s an absolute contradiction. The most commonly repeated justification for not re-opening the Nauru detention centre is that Nauru is not a signatory to the UN Conventions. That, apparently, was a deal-breaker. Now it seems that it’s only a deal-breaker when it can be used to bolster a shaky argument. Not only is the government apparently happy for Malaysia not be a signatory to these Conventions – it doesn’t even feel it should try to press the issue. We can take Malaysia’s word for it.
I’m sure there are more blatant definitions of hypocrisy around – but that’s got to rank up near the top of the list.
Then there’s the government’s attempt to exonerate itself from blame for any future boat arrivals by implying that the High Court’s decision might encourage people smugglers. This is just the latest variation on the Coalition’s usual argument – that asylum seekers make their decisions based on obscure questions of policy rather than fear for their safety. Only this time the scapegoat is the High Court.
So there is finally no daylight between the Howard and Gillard governments on the matter of asylum seekers. Both readily ignore their legal obligations. Both are willing to jump through verbal hoops to justify themselves. Both appeal to ‘decency’ and ‘fairness’ even as they enact policies that can be described as at best punitive.
While Howard’s government was caught up in legal wrangling in the Federal Court over the Tampa Affair, it enacted the Pacific Solution, excising Australian territory from Australia’s migration zone and doing deals with Nauru to spend even more millions on propping up that country in return for dumping our asylum seekers there. It’s arguable that this contributed to that government’s eventual win.
What are the chances we’ll see something similar tried by Gillard’s government? Well, it’s not quite the same situation. We’re in a minority government, with the balance of power out of the hands of the major parties in both Houses. We also have a hostile Opposition that is unlikely to want to help the government find a way out of its dilemma.
And unlike the Federal Court back in 2001, the current High Court has already shown that it’s not afraid to balk the government.
It will all come down to August 22. In the meantime, let’s keep an eye out for under-the-table legislation or sudden changes to regulations, shall we?
Afterword: ‘People smuggler’. It’s an ugly phrase, isn’t it? We hear it and we think of criminals who deal in human lives for profit – why, it’s tantamount to slavery. But think about this: once we gave out medals to people smugglers, as Julian Burnside points out on ABC Unleashed today.
The government deal with Malaysia to swap asylum-seekers for refugees is all but finalised. We’re going to intercept 800 people on boats, do some quick-and-dirty health checks, put them on planes and send them to Malaysia within 72 hours. In return, we’ll get 4000 confirmed refugees from them. Of course, we’re not guaranteeing the safety and supervision of unaccompanied minors, Malaysia gets to have the final say as to who they’ll accept and who they’ll toss our way, and oh yes, we don’t even know if there’s decent accommodation for the people we send – but pffft, details. The deal’s in the bag. All we need now are some asylum seekers.
And who are our lucky first contestants? Well, it looks like the 54 poor bastards who hoved into view on our horizon Sunday morning might get that honour. They were intercepted and brought to Christmas Island – which, you’ll remember, is an Australian territory, but no longer part of Australia’s official migration zone. They’ve been offloaded and placed in temporary detention while the cursory checks are done. It might take a little longer than 72 hours, apparently – there’s still that nagging problem of them possibly not having any accommodation in Australia – but Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured us this was little more than a hiccup.
“When the system is up and in full operation those returns will happen in 72 hours,” she said.
Isn’t that good to know? We won’t have time to worry about this, because the bureaucratic machine will be so well-oiled that they’ll be gone before we know it. Even better, the Prime Minister confirmed that the Australian Federal Police are authorised to use force to shove any reluctant asylum seekers onto Malaysia-bound planes. Out of sight, out of mind.
There’s a lot of comment out there this morning about how this is a ‘test’ for the Malaysian deal, and – by extension – for Gillard’s government. It needs to go off without a hitch. It needs to have an immediate effect in deterring further people from trying to get to Australia (in the revolting words of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, ‘to break the people smugglers’ business model). The Coalition are out there with their faux concern and the oft-repeated line that Nauru would be a better place to send these troublesome ‘boat people’. Government voices chant the ‘regional solution’ mantra. Commentators debate the relative merits of Nauru vs Malaysia, and how illustrative this whole situation is of Gillard’s need to follow through with decisive action.
What we’re not hearing (apart from Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s lone voice on Sky News) is that is the MV Tampa all over again. This is the government bending rules and perverting its responsibility towards human beings in peril who seek nothing but a new start free from persecution. This is whisking away the ‘problem’ and talking tough while using human lives to win polls. (You know, the polls to which no one in politics apparently listens.)
What’s worse is the government’s blithe assurance that if those pesky asylum seekers actually have the temerity to object to their deportation to a country that is not a signatory to UN refugee conventions, then the AFP can ‘use force’. What does that mean? The government hasn’t bothered to elaborate, and that raises a lot of alarming questions. Can they yell at them? Shove them? Force them into handcuffs and shackles and carry them? Use pepper spray? Nightsticks? Tasers?
Any or all of these? On men, women, children and victims of torture? (Because let’s not forget that the government has already categorically stated that everyone will get the same treatment with this deal.)
Oh but wait, that would never happen, would it? Sure, we might lock up innocent people in remote locations in conditions guaranteed to produce lasting psychological damage. Sure, we might offload people to a country where they can disappear into a system that refuses to guarantee their safety and health and which regularly administers corporal punishment for the most trivial of offences. Sure, we might even consider letting boats sink before we decide to finally save people in danger. But surely there’s a line. We’re not inhumane, after all.
Except we are. We’re willing to let this happen. Even if we’re not actually out there applauding this kind of behaviour, we’re not preventing it. We acknowledge that something has to be done about asylum seekers, while wilfully closing our minds to the facts that there are so few of them, and that these are people in need that we not only can, but must help. We signed up for this – and we’ve been trying to weasel our way out of our obligations since August 2001.
And for no good reason. There’s no ‘Islamist’ conspiracy to flood Australia with militants who will rise up and institute Sharia law. There’s no ‘erosion of our values’ or ‘threat to our way of life’. No one’s being forced to eat halal meat, wear a burqa or attend a mosque. Our kids aren’t required to learn Arabic in schools so they can be compelled to read the Koran. Despite relentless fear-mongering to the contrary, what we’ve seen is that refugees are – shockingly – just like everyone else.
And yet we treat these people as though they are so dangerous that the mere pressure of their feet upon our soil will destroy our world.
Perhaps that’s because we’re afraid that what the sight of them will destroy are our illusions that no one is ‘really’ getting hurt, and there’s nothing we can do.
Yes, it’s difficult to get out to Christmas Island, and any whiff that someone might be going there to protest will see them turned around before they get out of the airport, but there is more we can do.
There’s talk of a court action to prevent the government from carrying out their plan to forcibly deport asylum seekers. We can support that.
We can find out who our local MP or Senator is, and contact them. A Just Australia has useful tips on keeping emails short and direct.
We can do the same for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.
Prime Minister Gillard has a handy-dandy contact form on her website.
Then there’s Twitter. Many politicians now maintain Twitter accounts, and this is a good place to start looking Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd is particularly responsive to tweets – and is known to be openly critical of the Gillard government’s ‘lurch to the right’ on asylum seekers (to use his own words).
Don’t wait until the next election to send the message. It’s not a test for the government – it’s a test for us.
I’ve said all this before. In fact, looking back over this blog, I’ve said it over and over. Meanwhile the Coalition gets shriller, the government lurches further and further to the right, those who advocate for human rights are ridiculed or bullied – and the people caught in the middle of it all just continue to suffer.
So what’s the point? Why bother?
Because it’s the right thing to do. Because we need to put compassion before poll results, and human decency before pandering to fear. Because every person who doesn’t speak or act is one less voice that might make even a tiny bit of difference.
It’s a truism to say that those who have voices must speak up for those who don’t. Asylum seekers are locked up on remote islands, denied access to Australian society, and – now – about to disappear from our scrutiny altogether.
How much voice do they have?
And what are we doing with ours?
The Full Bench of the High Court handed down a unanimous decision today that has the potential to completely change how boat-borne asylum seekers have their claims processed. In this landmark ruling, the Court found that two Sri Lankan asylum seekers were denied ‘procedural fairness’, because – being incarcerated on Christmas Island – they had no access to the Australian court system.
See, that’s something not many people know, and no one talks about. If you walk off a plane and claim asylum, you are released into the community, assessed by the Refugee Review Tribunal, and have access to Australian courts to appeal an unfavourable ruling. If you come via boat, you get a ‘review’ process. That process looks like a court, but is not bound by Australian law. If the bureaucrats in charge of that deny your claim, your only hope is to pray that the Immigration Minister considers your case personally. Otherwise, you’ll be deported.
This is the ‘compassionate’ system put in place by the Howard government on Christmas Island and Nauru, and continued by the Rudd and Gillard governments even after the closure of the Nauru centre. In one of the most shameless and inhumane pieces of legislation passed by the Howard Government, Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and other destinations commonly sought by asylum seekers were ‘excised’ from Australian jurisdiction under the Immigration Act. This made it possible to deny full access to Australian law, in much the same way the US prevented suspected ‘terrorists’ from seeking legal redress in the courts. Although the Rudd government introduced an Independent Merits Review Process in 2008 so that those whose claims were denied once could appeal, the reality is that outside contractors hold the fate of asylum seekers in their hands – contractors who are not required to have any experience in immigration law, and who are accountable only to the Minister.
The High Court found today that this system is completely unfair, that it denies the rights of boat-borne asylum seekers the right to a fair hearing under Australian law. It ruled that all asylum seekers were bound by the Migration Act and other Australian laws, regardless of their mode of travel. This means that the government now derives no benefit from funnelling asylum seekers through offshore processing – they can no longer do an end run around the law. As law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, the legal firm who handled the case on behalf of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre noted, the decision ‘has important legal ramifications’.
Scott Morrison, the Coalition’s Shadow Immigration spokesperson, seems not to understand this. Shaking his head in disbelief, he fronted the media to tell them that this was a ‘terrible’ decision, ‘the best day for people smugglers since the reappointment of the Gillard government’. This was ‘proof’ of Labor’s ‘policy failure of cack-handedness’, he said, and added that the government should now embrace the Nauru solution. The High Court’s ruling did not apply to Nauru, he said. I’d like to think this was some kind of political strategy, but in reality, I think he just doesn’t get it. Whether asylum seekers come to Tullamarine Airport, Christmas Island, or Nauru, if they claim asylum from Australia they must now have access to the Australian court system.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said he was getting legal advice from the Solicitor-General, and would make recommendations to Cabinet within a few weeks. He seemed keen to create the impression that the ruling did not affect the policy of offshore detention, or the excision of Australian territories from the Migration Act. To say he looked like he didn’t believe that himself is an understatement. He was extremely nervous, and not just because David Marr was standing behind his shoulder looking like the Ghost of Righteous Fury Vindicated. (Read the excellent Dark Victory, which he co-wrote with Marian Wilkinson, if you haven’t yet heard his views on Australia’s refugee policy.) At this time, 145 people have been denied refugee status. That’s a potential 145 appeals.
Unless the government moves to introduce some particularly dodgy legislation, the implications of this High Court decision are far-reaching. It may not end offshore detention – there are certain political benefits, disgusting as that may be, to having refugees ‘out of sight and out of mind’. The recent xenophobic rabble-rousing over the proposed new centres at Northam and Inverbrackie prove that unpleasant point. At the very least, however, boat-borne asylum seekers should now have access to the court system, and would no longer be subject to the whims of the bureaucracy.
The Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, who were the main drivers of this High Court case, have not said whether they plan further legal action. It would be interesting to see whether the High Court would rule that incarcerating those who come on boats, while letting those who arrive by plane walk around freely, was an illegal two-tier system. Certainly, there are no good reasons for assuming that a sea-borne refugee is a greater threat to the community.
In the meantime, no matter what parliamentarians might be saying to the media, there is no getting away from the fact that this decision could change how Australia handles refugee claims – and change it for the better.