Inside Story

Beyond the morally indefensible status quo

It’s time to think outside the square on asylum seekers

Peter Brent 4 June 2018 1162 words

Policy challenge: the new member for Batman, Ged Kearney (standing), adds her voice to Labor members calling for a review of refugee policy, in her first speech to parliament on 21 May. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Two years ago former prime minister Tony Abbott did something his media drum-beaters didn’t appreciate: he expressed some regret about his decision as opposition leader in 2011 to oppose the Gillard government’s “people swap with Malaysia.”

That arrangement would have seen the first 800 unauthorised maritime arrivals sent to Malaysia, where they would be registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and live in the community, provided with health and education (paid for by Australia) and local work rights while they waited for the outcome of their refugee applications.

The “swap” part involved Australia resettling 4000 certified (but different) refugees from Malaysia. Many tens of thousands of registered refugees (and many more undocumented) live in Malaysia, most of them Rohingyas from Myanmar. The 4000 would have been part of the almost 14,000 Australia resettled annually at that time.

The logic behind the plan was that, in theory, no asylum seeker would want to be part of that first group of 800 and so none would get on a boat for Australia. But the arrangement sank because, in 2011, the High Court ruled it unlawful, and the Coalition and Greens refused to facilitate legislation to make it lawful.

“I doubt it would have worked,” Abbott told the Samuel Griffiths Society in 2016. “Still, letting it stand would have been an acknowledgement of the government of the day’s mandate to do the best it could, by its own lights, to meet our nation’s challenges.”

Not exactly root-and-branch self-criticism, but an acknowledgement.

It’s worth recalling all this because if something is to be done for the approximately 800 people still stuck on Nauru and Manus, policy-makers will need to again think outside the square. The status quo is morally indefensible.

Abbott was right: the Malaysia arrangement probably wouldn’t have succeeded. For one thing, those entitlements in Malaysia (multi-ethnic, multi-religious, GDP per capita many times that of Indonesia and Cambodia) might themselves have proved a “pull factor” for those already in Indonesia or Malaysia.

As well, the people smugglers could have just loaded up the first 800 spots with freebies, or even paid asylum seekers to take the trip. The business thrives on misrepresentation of Australian policy; otherwise why would people still be trying to get here (and they are) when all that awaits them is misery and isolation in the Pacific?

But we’ll never know; the plan was scuppered, the boat arrivals accelerated, and more people drowned.

Where are we today? The boats have more or less stopped, or at least are not getting past the “turnbacks.” That’s a good thing for those who might otherwise have died on that journey, but the flipside in the Pacific, the human misery, must be ended.

Even if the people in question are not “genuine” asylum seekers but rather “economic refugees” attempting to gain residency for themselves and their family in a high-income country by the back door, it is hardly an indicator of poor character, even if it involves telling fibs. (It could even suggest a degree of get-up-and-go, which is the sort of thing that makes “good” migrants.)

The Howard government had slowed unauthorised arrivals to a trickle, and the uptick began when the Rudd government in 2008 did precisely what it said it would at the previous year’s election: end offshore processing while keeping mandatory detention. It turned out to be arguably its biggest policy failure.

Although no one in the Coalition would publicly admit it, part of the reason it refused to help out legislatively in 2011 and 2012 was that it feared the plan might work, and rob it of what it saw as a vital tool in its political armoury.

Abbott became prime minister and the boats did indeed “stop” (though there is evidence the decline started with Kevin Rudd’s July 2013 policy change). What didn’t stop was Abbott’s declining popularity, which suggested that “boats” might not be the electoral game-changer the political class assumes it to be.

Yet the Coalition, and a large section of its hardcore supporters, remains utterly obsessed with the issue. Down to DNA level, it forms a crucial part of the identity of the Liberal Party, to the extent that the mere fact of being a tough immigration minister can propel an MP into leadership contention. (See first Scott Morrison and now Peter Dutton.) The self-appointed “base” demands the nasty language; the more cruelty the better.

But the Greens have the worst policy. They see no difficult issues, just base political considerations preventing Australia from doing what it should: resettle anyone who can scrape together the money for a package that takes them by plane to Jakarta and then by boat to Australia, and can be assessed as a refugee.

Then there’s that reliable stand-by, the “regional solution,” the most common version of which would involve processing asylum seekers in Indonesia — in other words, simply cutting out the last, dangerous, leg of the journey. So getting to Indonesia would be enough to guarantee Australian residency, provided refugee status is proved.

Wonderful for Garuda airlines if put in place, but pretty soon our annual quota (17,555 in 2015–16) would be gobbled up monthly, even weekly. And faced with an overloaded UNHCR bureaucracy in Java, aspiring residents would still have the option of jumping on a leaky boat headed south.

Labor remains terrified of the issue, with murmurings of dissent emerging from time to time, including in the past fortnight. Probably the bulk of the membership, and quite a few MPs, favour a Greens-style approach.

According to recent reports, Labor’s national conference, which was threatening to be a headache for Bill Shorten on asylum seekers, has been postponed until December. If Malcolm Turnbull calls an election before then, the 28 July by-election date shenanigans will have helped Labor no end.

Thanks to Rudd Labor’s disaster, Coalition “rebels” on asylum seeker policy now number just one: Russell Broadbent.

For those who (like me) believe that denial of residency is a legitimate tool to break the business model, but that inflicting cruelty absolutely is not, the options seem limited.

How about this: bring all the detainees on Manus and Nauru, whether found to be refugees or not (and excluding those assessed a security risk), to Australia, give them permanent residency and assist them to get on with their lives. Boat turnbacks should continue, even escalated, certainly in the short term as the boat operators test the new waters.

Yes it would be a risk, but all public policy involves trade-offs.

Let’s increase our refugee intake further, in part to ameliorate the damage already inflicted on our reputation overseas. And policy-makers should put on their lateral thinking caps, as the Gillard government did. Inflicting misery should be ruled out as a tool of deterrence.

(Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is no great friend of Australia; that particular plan is unlikely to be revived.)

There is no chance of the Coalition doing anything like this. But a new government might. ●