One of the most distressing spectacles in Australian political history must surely be the current manoeuvring by Labor and the Liberals to achieve the most draconian asylum seeker policy. In this, Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen and his shadow counterpart Scott Morrison have displayed equal relish for playing the role of bad cop. As Kerry Murphy pointed out in this piece for the Conversation, there is now virtually no difference between Labor’s approach to refugees and that of the Liberal party. Both are pungently reminiscent of the Howard-Ruddock era. We now have, in the form of so-called ‘bridging visas’ introduced by Labor this week, a further echo of the Howard government’s ‘Pacific Solution’. The visas represent yet another, tougher tweaking of the Gillard government’s asylum seeker policy which is failing on every level.
Never mind that what has been widely dubbed the ‘Pacific Solution Mark Two’ has not succeeded in reducing the number of refugees arriving in Australia by boat; Amnesty International declared this week that conditions on the Nauru processing centre are ‘completely unacceptable’. The Age’s Michael Gordon, reporting on an Amnesty International delegation’s response to an inspection of Nauru on Tuesday, wrote that: ‘[They] expressed shock at the conditions at the camp after being given unfettered access... saying they were tougher than those at any mainstream detention centre and responsible for a “terrible spiral” of self-harm, hunger strikes and suicide attempts’. Just yesterday, an Iranian man attempted suicide on Nauru after hearing that the government’s ‘no advantage’ principle would apply to refugees transferred to Australia as well.
This principle has become a key feature of recent Labor refugee policy after being recommended by the ‘Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers’ report released on 13 August. Its implementation, now broadened to apply to refugees relocated to the Australian mainland because of overcrowding in the offshore processing centres, means that refugees will be made to wait an indefinite period of time – as much as five years – in processing limbo. Those who find themselves in Australia will not be able to work and will have no idea when the authorities will force them to go to Nauru or Manus Island to sit out the rest of their crimeless sentence.
This point – that the seeking of asylum in Australia by boat is not illegal – remains one of the most shamefully mischaracterised aspects of the refugee debate in this country. Tony Abbott continues to describe asylum seekers as ‘illegals’ and to define their activities as criminal. It is this kind of deceitful and divisive rhetoric which allows discussion of this issue to become soured and stupid, infected with nonsense terms like ‘queue-jumper’.
That it continually needs to be reiterated that there is no queue and that the seeking of asylum is not illegal illustrates the effectiveness of the Liberal’s party line on this issue. I won’t repeat Tony Abbott’s infamous and infantile three-word mantra here, but I will say I was shocked and angered to hear it used uncritically by an ABC TV journalist recently. We must not allow the mainstream uptake of such drivelling dog-whistling to legitimise the demonisation of those seeking asylum in Australia.
Nobody should be surprised that the coalition revels in the corruption of the refugee debate. It all began, after all, under Abbott’s political father figure John Howard, and arguably secured Howard’s re-election in 2001. What stuns is the fervour with which the ALP now seeks to harden its stance on asylum seekers. Who would have thought that virtual bipartisanship could be achieved – or even desired – on this issue? The Green’s Sarah Hanson Young characterised the policy approaches of the major parties at a press conference today in this way: ‘The politics of John Howard, and the language of Pauline Hanson’.
Despite the increasingly callused nature of ALP asylum seeker policy, the party continues to portray itself as the one which cares the most. There has been a devilish moving of the goalposts here, centered around the shameless hijacking of the midyear furore which saw a tabloid-led outcry at the failure of both the government and the opposition to prevent refugees from drowning at sea. Gillard’s own mantra, not as short but equally as ill-founded as Abbott’s, is in essence that the ultimate aim of asylum seeker policy should be to stop refugees from getting on boats and thereby preventing them from drowning en route to Australia. It follows from this that any refugee policy ought to be viewed as humane if it prevents the ‘more’ inhumane situation of asylum seekers dying before they even reach Australian shores. The proposition is, of course, an entirely false one but it allows the government to produce a devastating trump card every time the issue is raised: ‘Either you support our policies of deterrence, or you support refugees drowning at sea. Which is it?’ You are, to paraphrase George W. Bush, either with them or against them.
There are, of course, many alternatives. The Liberal Party and the ALP both seek to narrow the debate, to boil the whole thing down to a few catchphrases and supposed moral imperatives. What neither party will countenance is a nuanced or genuinely humane approach. Julian Burnside recently proposed a four-step plan which would greatly reduce both the cost and the suffering. He concluded the article thusly: ‘It is... tragic to see our national character being damaged by a Labor government which does not have the political spine to tell it like it is: to point out to voters that there is a better way; that we are better than this’.
He is right to use the plural personal pronoun here. It is up to us to demand another way be found, a set of policies which treat asylum seekers as human beings rather than fodder for desperately unpopular political leaders. It is up to us to denounce the reprehensible fear-mongering of the Liberals, and the increasingly heartless and dishonest about-facing of Labor. There are alternatives.