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Barbed wire fence

This consensus of cruelty must end

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By Mark Phillips

Monday, 08 February 2016

THERE have been so many false starts, dead ends and derailments, that it is too early to say this is a turning point in asylum seeker policy in Australia.

But the public and political reaction over the past week and a bit to the plight of 37 babies and their families facing return to the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres has been encouraging.

It is true to say that no other issue has so vexed the current generation of national political leaders than immigration.

For more than 15 years, the conundrum of how to maintain Australia’s multiculturalism and postwar leadership in accepting refugees and asylum seekers while balancing national security in a global environment plagued by terrorism and instability has been an ever-present backdrop to other day-to-day issues in Canberra.

How a nation treats vulnerable and deprived people is the greatest test of its compassion and its character. In the 1970s, confronted by the wave of humanity fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Australia passed this test with flying colours.

But it has comprehensively failed since the start of the millennium.

Downward slide began in the 1990s

There is no doubt this is an incredibly complex and challenging issue that has required a sophisticated and multi-faceted approach. This author has no simple answers.

But by turning the plight of asylum seekers into an opportunity to out-tough each other in the pursuit of votes – effectively demonising boat people to turn them into a political football – both major parties have brought shame upon Australia.

While for many, the downward slide began with the Tampa in August 2001 and the so-called Pacific Solution that followed, it should not be forgotten that it was Labor in the 1990s that first introduced mandatory detention in 1994. Arguably, that set the precedent for the casual cruelty with which we now treat boat people.

But no-one back in 1994 could have predicted the litany of abuse that is today committed in our name: the dumping of people in prisons in the desert or remote islands; the collaboration with weak and corrupt governments to find a way of pushing the problem onto another country.

The locking up of children; the denial of basic rights to work for those caught in the Kafkaesque limbo of temporary protection visas; the deliberate sabotage to make boats unseaworthy and turning back of vessels at sea, even after they are in our territorial waters; the use of the military for political purposes, alongside the waste of billions of dollars of taxpayers money.

The many backdoor legal tactics to prevent people from seeking asylum on our shores; and most shameful of all, the practice of returning people who have failed to satisfy a refugee test back to the country they have fled, to face possible torture or death.

So today we have a situation of  2000 people trapped in sub-human conditions in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, with no immediate hope of release, their claims for refugee status all but ignored while they live in conditions which for many are as bad as those they have fled.

A flimsy excuse is used to justify this cruelty: that if we weaken our tough stance on our borders, it will lead to more people dying at sea attempting to come to Australia; while rewarding people smugglers at the same time. And to add insult to injury, one of the key architects of this travesty, Philip Ruddock, has just been appointed Australia’s roving ambassador for human rights by Malcolm Turnbull.

George Orwell would have been proud of such double-speak.

That this disgrace is allowed to continue is down to the moral cowardice of both major parties, who seem to consider the votes of a few xenophobic bigots in marginal seats to be more important than acting humanely.

But occasionally, a story emerges from this morass that provides a faint hope of a change of approach.

That’s why the situation of 37 babies, most of them born in Australia to parents seeking refuge from countries like Iran, Bangladesh and Burma, is so important.

The federal government wants to return to Manus Island and Nauru these babies and their parents, along with 160 other adults and 54 other children who have been brought to Australia mostly or medical treatment.

The government case was strengthened by a High Court decision last week which ruled that Australia’s offshore detention centre on Nauru was constitutional.

The case was launched by a Bangladeshi detainee on Nauru who was brought to Australia for treatment and later gave birth to her daughter in Brisbane.

Lawyers for the woman argued that it was illegal for the Australian Government to fund and operate detention centres in a third country. But the High Court did not agree, and threw out the challenge.

The government may won the legal argument last week, but it is losing the moral one.

These innocent babies, born in this country but destined to be locked up in the Third World with their families, have touched heartstrings and the public reaction has raised a glimmer of hope of a change of policy.

Whatever the veracity of their parents claims to refugee status, to punish these babies is a sign of a system that is out of control.

Less than 24 hours after the High Court decision, tens of thousands of concerned citizens took to streets in state capitals and some regional centres demanding that the asylum seekers be allowed to stay in Australia. A social media campaign using the hashtag #LetThemStay has gathered momentum and more rallies were held on Monday evening.

To date, the government remains resolute, with Malcolm Turnbull on Sunday wheeling out that worn old cliché that his government won’t reward people smugglers by weakening on border control.

But the pressure on Turnbull to show some compassion is great, and became greater after the Victorian, Queensland and ACT governments offered unilaterally to accept responsibility for the asylum seekers and provide them with shelter and sanctuary.

No doubt there is an element of political grandstanding given the states can have zero real influence on foreign policy, but this is still a welcome development.

But beyond the immediate offers of support for the babies, there remains the much longer-term problem of an effective solution to what is an unsustainable and inhumane policy.

The reality is that there will be no lasting change until one of the major parties is courageous enough to break the bipartisan consensus on cruelty.

Even in their generous offers to provide sanctuary, the state and territory Labor governments have exposed the limitations of their actions given that their party voted at last year’s national conference to keep adopt boat turnbacks and keep offshore processing.

This was a missed opportunity for Labor which was not forgotten at last week’s rallies. There were boos for Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, whose strong statement lamenting the past 15 years of asylum seeker policy was regarded as hypocritical given her failure to vote against boat turn backs last year.

Unions show moral leadership

At the rally in Melbourne last week, the strongest speech was given by the national secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union, Michele O’Neil, who also spoke passionately and eloquently against turn backs at last year’s Labor conference.

The rally was also told that the Victorian Trades Hall building in Carlton would open its doors to any asylum seekers wanting sanctuary against being returned to Nauru and Manus Island, and was prepared to face the consequences of the law for doing so.

At least the industrial wing of the labour movement can be proud of its consistent and principled stance for a more humane policy.

Even when Labor was in power federally a few years ago, unions collectively opposed the government policy of offshore processing, and that opposition was reinforced at last year’s ACTU Congress.

It is incumbent on unions to use their undoubted influence in the Labor Party to convince the ALP leadership that adopting a similar cruel approach to asylum seekers is not only wrong, but is not a vote-winner.

In the meantime, the Turnbull government should do the right thing by the 37 babies and other sick asylum seekers on Australian soil, and let them stay until their cases are resolved, rather than send them back to the living hell that is Nauru and Manus Island.

The author was the founding editor of Working Life. All views expressed are his own.


Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.

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