Hard-headed AND hard-hearted

August 13, 2012

The expert panel appointed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to ‘fix’ Australia’s asylum seeker policy handed down its report today. There were 22 recommendations, which can be found here. They amount to a more draconian version of the Pacific Solution, with the worst of the current government’s policies thrown in.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the language. It’s all about ensuring there is ‘no advantage’ for asylum seekers, that they can gain ‘no benefit’. Houston took that one step further, implying that those who ‘choose’ to seek asylum via a boat voyage did so because it allowed them to ‘circumvent’ regular migrations arrangements.

So first up, we have the ‘queue-jumper’ argument. Those who arrive by boat and claim asylum are doing something ‘wrong’, which is unfair to those who sit in camps halfway around the world. That’s the foundation for the panel’s recommendations; that asylum seekers are selfish criminals. It doesn’t matter how much they dress it up with rhetoric about deaths at sea and protecting people from making dangerous voyages; once the queue-jumper argument is in play, real agendas become exposed.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the panel went on to recommend that the detention centre on Nauru be re-opened as soon as possible, and that another be established in Papua New Guinea (most likely, the refurbishment of the Manus Island facility). That’s what you do with criminals, right? You put them in detention, out of sight and (hopefully) out of mind.

To facilitate this, the panel suggested that the government introduce legislation to allow this offshore processing to take place – in other words, to close the loophole successfully exploited by human rights lawyer David Manne that put an end to the Malaysia people swap. And speaking of Malaysia, the panel said it wasn’t necessary to throw that away altogether. The solution, while currently unviable, can be rehabilitated with a little work.

So at this point we have the worst of the two major parties’ policies in an unholy marriage – the ridiculous, pointless, horrifying Malaysian people swap, and the proven inhumanity of the Pacific Solution. This panel – which apparently included a refugee advocate – recommends sending people to countries that are not signatories to UN conventions, and in the case of Nauru, into situations known to cause serious mental and physical harm.

But it gets worse.

You see, the panel determined there was a significant ‘pull’ factor. Boat-borne asylum seekers were likely to come to Australia because they could apply to bring their families over through the special humanitarian family reunion scheme. The solution, therefore, was to remove access to that scheme for any asylum seeker who came by sea. They’d have to go through the Migration program. Oh, and that includes anyone whose claims are currently in progress – that should stop right now.

Yeah, you read that right.

Not only did the panel again attempt to criminalise asylum seekers, they actually recommended something which is likely to result in more deaths at sea, not less. It’s common for a father or oldest male relative to make the journey, be processed and then apply to bring his family to his country of asylum, in order to spare them the risk. Certainly, it’s far more dangerous for a child to undertake the voyage than an adult. But as far as the panel is concerned, what’s ‘really’ going on is just an attempt to do an end run around our migration procedures. Never mind that these families live in constant fear while they wait to hear from their fathers. Never mind that this may be the only way a man can safeguard his family. The panel would have you believe that they’re just being unfair.

But of course, the ‘best’ thing to do would be to stop the boats altogether, right? That’s what we really want, surely? Houston was forced to admit that this just simply wasn’t feasible at the moment – but added that it could be . A little diplomacy here, the odd handshake there, and we can do it.

And just in case those pesky boat people do sneak through the net and make it to the Australian shore? The panel have a solution for that, too.

Remember when former Prime Minister John Howard decided to excise certain island territories from Australia’s migration zone, thus removing a number of legal protections under Australian law from asylum seekers? Well, the panel thinks we should standardise legal status – not to give people in the excised zones more rights, but to give those who land inside Australia’s migration zone less.

There were a couple of lines tacked onto the end dealing with the idea of beefing up our Search and Rescue capacity, and perhaps doing a bit more research, but that’s the gist of the report. Demonise them, keep them out if possible, and if we can’t, lock them up offshore (oh, I’m sorry, Houston doesn’t like the word ‘offshore’; he prefers ‘regional’) and do everything we can to ensure that their escape from persecution is as traumatic and xenophobic as possible. Oh, and the panel suggests that all their recommendations should be adopted, because they’re so wonderfully integrated. In other words, no naughty amendments to legislation, you bleeding hearts. Apparently this report is something like a Jenga tower, and would collapse if one little bit was moved.

These recommendations are the worst sort of dog-whistling, and the fact that Houston repeatedly described these decisions as ‘strategic’ only betrays the thinking behind them. Not ‘humanitarian’, not ‘compassionate’, not even ‘safe’. Strategic. Houston would have us believe that asylum seekers on boats are the enemy.

Asylum seekers are not the enemy. This ‘expert’ panel’s report is the enemy. It gives us no solutions, merely panders to the worst qualities in us, and seeks to wrap prejudice and expedience up in mealy-mouthed appeals to ‘fairness’.

In presenting the report, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston remarked that its recommendations were ‘hard-headed, but not hard-hearted’, ‘realistic but not idealistic’, and ‘driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness’.

I beg to differ, sir.

UPDATE:

Ron Knight, MP for Manus Province in the Papua New Guinea national parliament, told the ABC today that he doubted the disused detention facility could be easily restored. Even if it were, he said, the people were already worried that there would be no benefit to local business, as last time nearly everything was sourced from offshore. He went on to intimate that local landowners might prove an insurmountable obstacle, no matter what the government recommended.

Then there’s the Nauru facility, which is in a state of incredible disrepair. It hasn’t been maintained, and over the years, parts of the structures have been co-opted to use as government offices or even cannibalised by the locals for other buildings.

Keep that in mind next time you hear Gillard or Abbott say that by the end of the week, there’ll be full assessments done, and that within a matter of weeks those facilities can be working at capacity.

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Party of no policy?

February 15, 2012

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking we’re in the middle of an election campaign. Between lobby groups buying up television advertising, drop-in visits from the Leader of the Opposition to every kind of business from dry cleaners to aluminium plants, and what seems like at least one opinion poll every freakin’ day, it sure seems like it.

There’s no election date called. There’s no election date even on the horizon. But the campaign is in full swing. Given this, I decided to take a look at what policies were out there from the ‘alternative government’.

Let’s see …

Repeal the carbon pricing scheme with all associated rebates, compensation and industry assistance. Presumably this includes the lifting of the tax-free threshold and pensioner allowances.

Repeal the Mining Resources Rent Tax.

Repeal the means test for the 30% private health insurance rebate.

Scrap the NBN. It’s unclear whether that includes ripping out the infrastructure already in place and returning those areas already connected to copper.

Close Trades Training Centres.

Rip up any deals that might be made with Malaysia regarding asylum seekers, discontinue community detention and reinstitute processing on Nauru and Temporary Protection Visas.

Well.

But surely there are actual, concrete, positive policies out there? Maybe the media just isn’t reporting them. So I swung by the Liberal Party’s website to take a look. And there they were. Policy documents. Policies on health, energy, transport, the economy … you name it.

But wait.

Every single policy document is from the 2010 election.

None of the mini-essays from the relevant Shadows date from later than 2010.

And the odd piece of writing from this year? Falls into one of two categories: either relentless criticism of Labor; or a promise to repeal, scrap or otherwise abolish nearly every major accomplishment of the government.

If Abbott wants an election so badly – as he claims he does – surely he should start releasing alternative policy? If it’s imperative to stop the government from implementing its policy, or – god forbid – being re-elected, why not show us a better option? Motherhood statements are all very well, but they are no substitute for concrete policy.

It’s really no wonder that the most common parody of the Opposition is that they are the ‘Noalition’.

And lest readers complain that I am unfairly concentrating on the Opposition, I’d like to point out that government policy is under constant scrutiny as legislation comes before the House and the Senate. Those policies can be thoroughly analysed.

It’s very, very hard to examine what amounts to nothing more than the word ‘NO’, repeated ad nauseam.

Perhaps we will get some real policy announcements from the Opposition when the election date is finally announced. But given their track record of refusing to provide policies that have enough detail to be verified?

I’d have to say … no.


Migration Act changes are completely without humanity

September 19, 2011

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?

But wait.

@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’.


Let’s have a real conversation about asylum seekers

September 13, 2011

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!’

Et cetera.

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 …


Malaysia deal dead in the water – for now

August 31, 2011

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.

A summary of the judgment can be found here and the full transcript here.

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.


Malaysian deal a test for us, not for the government

August 1, 2011

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?


A representative Parliament? Tell her she’s dreaming

June 14, 2011

I had the most wonderful dream last night. I dreamed that politicians, asked to appear on media panel shows and radio interviews, engaged on the issues. I dreamed that three word slogans and blatant spin doctoring were somehow removed from the political vocabulary. I dreamed of passionate, substantive debate – that each side acknowledged the good ideas of the other, and owned up to their own mistakes. I dreamed that politicians worked together to get stuck into the really difficult issues – climate change, asylum seekers, mental health, indigenous health, true equality – without fear of losing the next election or its campaign donations.

I dreamed of an Australian Parliament that truly put the country’s welfare first, ahead of party ideology, ahead of points-scoring and vote-buying.

I woke up to this.

Peter Dutton, Shadow Spokesperson for Health and Ageing, appeared with Trade Minister Craig Emerson on Sky News’ AM Agenda program. He had this to say on asylum seekers: Nauru is the only possible solution for us to deal with this ‘problem’. Over there, people would be free to roam in the community, and even attend church. The Nauruans would welcome them, just like they did last time. It’s the only humane solution.

Humane. How does Dutton not choke on that word?

Nauru is a tiny, water-starved island only 21km across – a worked-out phosphate mine. It is completely dependent on other nations, primarily Australia, for almost everything. It is utterly isolated. Dutton’s declaration that asylum seekers sent there would be free to roam in the community is nonsensical – it’s not like they can disappear into the wider community, is it? Where would they go? Attempt to swim to the Solomon Islands, over 1000km away?

And you can just bet the Nauruan government is willing to bend over backwards to get the detention centre re-opened. They know a good cash cow when they see one. Australian money helps keep the bankrupt nation afloat. When the Pacific Solution was scrapped by the Rudd government, they were deeply dismayed at the loss of funds.

And Peter Dutton says this was humane. Innocent people were exiled to this island in handcuffs, repeatedly bullied to rescind their claim for refugee status, detained for long periods of time in conditions that would be unacceptable for prisoners of war, suffer physical and mental illness, self-harm and even attempt suicide. How could that possibly be humane?

But then Craig Emerson extolled the virtues of sending asylum seekers to Malaysia or Manus Island. It’s a ‘regional solution’. Clearly that is better than simply sending people back to Nauru.

I’ve already written about the potential dangers of Malaysia for asylum seekers. To even suggest that the government’s proposed refugee swap is in some way beneficial for those people is ludicrous.

But what about Manus Island in Papua New Guinea? That was part of the Pacific Solution. That might be a better place.

Well, it’s bigger than Nauru … around 100km x 30km.

Other than that … let’s see. Isolation, mental and physical illness, abuse of human rights … sound familiar?

Then there was Aladdin Sisalem, the ‘forgotten asylum seeker’, who was detained alone in the Manus Island centre well after its supposed closure.

And just by the way, Papua New Guinea also has a history of mistreating asylum seekers, and beating confirmed refugees.

The so-called success of every one of these ‘solutions’ depends entirely on the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ principle. If asylum seekers aren’t visible, they might as well not exist. Politically, that’s a big win. Never mind the systemic abuses of power and human rights – documented facts of record.

There was a Senate Committee investigation into the Pacific Solution, and Nauru in particular. One submission documented the conditions in the camps, and the plight of the asylum seekers held there. In the words of one interviewed detainee:

‘Nauru is not a camp for human, it is a jail just like a hell.’

Another investigation, undertaken by Oxfam, concluded that any way you slice it, the price of Australia’s offshore detention policy is ‘too high’.

Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young wrote a stinging editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald today condemning the government’s ‘regional solution’, side-swiping the Coalition along the way. She made some excellent points, including the fact that Australia is shirking its legal obligations towards refugees.

But even she couldn’t resist throwing in a party political ad.

These are the people we elected. It’s no use saying, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for them!’ We did. We all did. And then we sit on our hands for three years until the next election, vote again and wonder why nothing changes.

Hanson-Young urged people to take to the streets in support of humane treatment for asylum seekers. While we’re at it, we could march in support of same-sex marriage, tackling climate change, equal pay, or any one of a dozen causes.

Or how about this? We take to the streets to protest against politicians who care more about votes than people. We march in support of a working Parliament committed to the good of the country rather than the perpetuation of ideology. We wave our banners and call for real debate. We stop traffic in the capital cities of Australia. We take the passion that we disseminate amongst all those causes, and focus it straight at Canberra, and say to politicians, ‘You serve us, and it’s about time you remembered that!’

Oh.

Damn.

I just woke up again.


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