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The ‘excision’ that isn’t, and why it’s good policy

The government’s bill for the so-called “excision” of Australia is sound policy if we’re serious about stopping boat arrivals. Criticism of the move is sharply misguided.

Report of the expert panel on asylum seekers, August 2012:

The panel considers that all possible measures should be implemented to avoid creating an incentive for IMAs taking even greater risks with their lives by seeking to reach the Australian mainland … the panel recommends the government bring forward legislative amendments to the Migration Act 1958 so that arrival on the Australian mainland by irregular maritime means does not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who enter at an excised offshore place, such as Christmas Island … such an amendment will be important to ensure that introduction of processing outside Australia does not encourage asylum seekers to avoid these arrangements by attempting to enter at the Australian mainland. Such attempts would increase the existing dangers inherent in irregular maritime travel.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, August 13:

The government today has determined to endorse in principle, all of the recommendations of Angus Houston’s report.”

The Daily Telegraph, October 31:

Backflip on asylum zone as Labor adopts John Howard exclusion policy.”

ABC, October 31:

Minister defends Govt backflip on mainland migration excision”

So, did anyone bother actually reading the Houston report, and particularly paragraphs 3.72 and 3.73? The Labor Left did. “That’s when the fight was, and that’s when the fight was lost,” Doug Cameron said yesterday.

There appear to be four grounds for criticising the government’s excision of the mainland, none of which are valid reasons for opposing it. The first, and most easily disposed of, is that Labor has changed its position from 2006 when the Howard government considered similar legislation. Indeed it has. It’s funny what having actual power and responsibility can do. But Labor has entirely changed its position on asylum seekers, not merely on this issue, for reasons it has routinely outlined.

Second is the criticism that the bill absurdly excises Australia from its own borders. “The idea that you would take the borders of your country out of your migration zone purely to target people who are trying to come here seeking protection is just an extraordinary thing for any country to do,” Amnesty International’s Graham Thom was reported as saying.

The bill does nothing of the sort. It redefines maritime arrivals from those who arrived at excised offshore places to include both those who do so and those who have entered by sea at all, unless they are subject to an exemption. The redefinition is of arrivals, not of Australia’s borders.

Third is the claim that it somehow abrogates our responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention. In fact the UNHCR itself, in a media release yesterday criticising the government’s bill, specifically rejected this:

UNHCR’s longstanding view is that under international law any excision of territory for a specific purpose has no bearing on the obligation of a country to abide by its international treaty obligations which apply to all of its territory. This includes the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a party.”

The fourth is that this is somehow inhumane. The Houston report bluntly addresses this. The entire point is to reduce the risk of asylum seekers spending longer at sea, and maximising the chances of dying, by trying to reach the mainland in an effort to avoid being sent to Nauru or PNG.

Imagine an alternative scenario, in which Labor decided that having so fervently condemned the Howard government for trying to adopt a similar approach, it wouldn’t be a good look now to do it, despite the Houston report recommending it. Put consistency before policy, avoid the charge of hypocrisy and backflip, save face.

If, after such a decision had been made, a boat of asylum seekers trying to reach the mainland in an effort to avoid being sent elsewhere had sunk with attendant loss of life, the government would have correctly been open to the charge of putting politics, and saving face, ahead of the lives of asylum seekers. The charge of “blood on its hands” would have been wholly merited, having been advised to adopt a course of action and decided, purely so it wouldn’t look bad, to ignore it.

Still, it’s not like people routinely complain about governments putting political expediency ahead of doing the right thing.

The logic of the Houston report is to stop maritime arrivals, because people die trying to reach Australia by boat. The bill to redefine arrivals is a core part of it. Those who oppose it either fail to grasp the logic of the Houston report, which aims at rebalancing incentives away from maritime arrivals to safer, regular arrivals (thus the massive increase in our refugee intake, to 20,000 people a year, which appears to have gone unremarked except for the opposition’s whingeing about how it will be paid for). Or they prefer a policy that no government would ever accept, of establishing an open door to Australia via an offshore processing centre in Indonesia that automatically accepts all comers.

The Greens, in particular, have strongly criticised the bill, although they scored rare praise from Scott Morrison on Tuesday when he noted that, unlike Labor, they have maintained a consistent stand.

Of course, had the Greens not opposed the government’s legislation to enable the Malaysian policy (which had been struck down by the High Court), there’d be no Houston panel and no Nauru and PNG.

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  • 1
    francho
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    the only sensible comment i’ve read on the subject so far. I tried earlier to add the below comment (referring to Craig Thompson’s position) to the fairfax pulse website but it was rejected - they obviously don’t like paticular policy positions over there, very strange and won’t be trying again. Maybe i will have better luck here.

    Thomson now has a moral compass? I don’t think so. Returning to the pacific solution, malaysia, no advantage, etc, etc, were the lurching right steps. Excising the mainland will make little difference to refugees who mainly try to reach outer territories, but it will stop some trying to make it all the way here on boats that are not seaworthy. Without the change tony abbott would make a meal of Labor when the next boat made it to the mainland. There is a lot of posturing about this legislation but the Labor party changed its position on asylum seekers a while back and perhaps everyone should just read the expert panel report - that’s what the govt is doing and has said it is doing. Agree with it or not, this didn’t come out of nowhere as commentators are suggesting. The media’s focus on this and the commentary provided shows how little the media really understands asylum policy and distorts the debate.

  • 2
    Simon Roberts
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Someone else who has no clue on how to “stop the boats”.The Only way that people will stop coming is if boats are turned back. But this cannot be done as Indonesia will not allow it. All of this tinkering is just that.

  • 3
    Musrum
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Of course, had the Greens not opposed the government’s legislation to enable the Malaysian policy

    Wasn’t it a private member’s bill from Windsor?

  • 4
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    This issue is one in which I struggle tofind the right policy, I was strongly opposed to offshore processing but having seen the number of deaths at sea of people trying to reach our shores I find it hard to support onshore processing if that is the result.
    The Houston report while recommending policies I have preciously found questionable does result in Australia dramatically increasing it’s refugee intake and that alone merits it’s implementation in full to at least see if it is successful.
    However I fear the Opposition will support all the sticks, none of the carrot’s and not the Malaysia deal and with the Greens holding out for only on shore processing we could be left with something undesirable and ineffective.

    I look forward to Shepherd Marilyn’s abuse.

  • 5
    James Dean
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if anyone’s really summed it up before, but the goal I see for border protection policy should be to stop people getting on boats. Not to prevent them from getting here, but to prevent them from exposing themselves to the risks of the journey. The problem is that there’s nothing that will stop them from using a boat if there’s any advantage in doing so, whatever the risks are. If they see it as their only choice, and they do, no risk and no punishment is enough.

    The only thing we can do is remove the reward at the end.

    I haven’t completely absorbed all of this policy yet, but what I understand sounds right. No right morally, necessarily, but perhaps the only choice.

  • 6
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Simon Roberts - “The Only way that people will stop coming is if boats are turned back.” The only way people will stop coming is if conditions in their own country improve dramtically.
    Turning back the boats is a short sighted idea that does nothing to address the underlying issues and only offends our regional partners who see it (rightly) as us shirking our responsibilities and forcing them to do all the work.

  • 7
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Simon Roberts - “The Only way that people will stop coming is if boats are turned back.” The only way people will stop coming is if conditions in their own country improve dramtically.
    Turning back the boats is a short sighted idea that does nothing to address the underl ying issues and only offends our regional partners who see it (rightly) as us shirking our responsibilities and forcing them to do all the work.

  • 8
    Robert Merkel
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the policy isn’t a surprise.

    It’s still a cynical and mendacious further extension of our attempts to evade the responsibilities we signed up for in the UN Refugee Convention.

    If we want to get out of the Refugee Convention, fine. Let the government and opposition do so. But the current situation where we continue to proclaim that we are living up to our international responsibilities, while systematically not doing so in practice, is hypocrisy of the highest order.

  • 9
    Sean
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    So what happens when the boats still don’t stop?

  • 10
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    RObert Merkel - “It’s still a cynical and mendacious further extension of our attempts to evade the responsibilities we signed up for in the UN Refugee Convention.” Did you read the article?
    “Third is the claim that it somehow abrogates our responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention. In fact the UNHCR itself, in a media release yesterday criticising the government’s bill, specifically rejected this:

    “UNHCR’s longstanding view is that under international law any excision of territory for a specific purpose has no bearing on the obligation of a country to abide by its international treaty obligations which apply to all of its territory. This includes the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a party.”

    Sean - “So what happens when the boats still don’t stop?” They implement the rest of the Houston report recommendations, if they still don’t stop then they will have to try something else but at least they will have tried.

  • 11
    pearton@bigpond.com.au
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Your last comment that basically this is all the Greens’ fault is ridiculous. I am a member of the Greens and as such I vote for Green policy. If our elected representatives vote against Green policy, what would be the point of members voting to establish that policy?

  • 12
    Michael James
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Funny, as I recall Crikey was adamant that this policy, when proposed by Howard’s government, was inhumane and a national disgrace proving our racist leanings.

    Now Labour proposes it and somehow it’s morphed into a high minded policy decision.

    Oh Crikey, your hypocrisy is breathtaking.

  • 13
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Pearton - Until there comes a time when the greens govern in their own right the Greens have to make the most of whatever power they get to negotiate an outcome that most matches greens policy.
    If they choose to only vote for Greens policy they run the risk of spurning something they could live with only to end p with something they vehemently oppose.
    In this case the Greens chose to oppose the Malaysian Solution and the result was that Nauru and PNG get re-opened. Neither are the Greens preferred option but which would the Greens prefer?

  • 14
    Andrew ( )
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Well, finally we may be able to have a disscusion of the topic without the histeria. That is until the likes of Marilyn perks in. Her tactic appears to be to paint anyone who doesn’t believe in open borders as a racist, thereby intimidating people to have an open and intelligent discussion and trying to shut down the topic.
    I believe that most people are supportive of refugees but want it to be done in a fair way. The Australian way. All refugees, of which there are many more that Australia could ever take, get a fair chance, not just those that can afford to pay a people smuggler.
    There is nothing wrong with that attitude.
    The expert panel that recommended these changes to immigration policy have information that the public are not readily aware of and we need to trust their judgement.
    With the last major problem issue for the government being addressed, I wonder what Tony’s going to do? He’s finished.

  • 15
    Fiona Katauskas
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bernard,

    While I understand your arguments I completely disagree with the premise of them and the premise of Labor’s (and its Houston Report’s) approach- that “Stopping the Boats” is the only desirable and viable option.

    Firstly, a policy based on stopping the boats assumes that deterrence is the key and that pull factors are the only thing driving people to get on boats. This is absurd- the boats will stop only when wars and oppression stop or Australia becomes as bad as where these people came from. Even if the boats do stop coming to Australia, they will go elsewhere, where they may not be our problem but people will still die at sea (although if they’re headed elsewhere we don’t have to pretend to care).

    Secondly, the high moral groundism of “we’re stopping people dying at sea” is yet another misrepresentation of the situation. While it is terrible for anyone to drown on a boat coming to Australia, the number of asylum seeker lives lost at sea is not 80% of boat arrivals, not even 50% but 4%. Four percent. Condemning 100% of people to a “no advantage” indefinite period in detention on a Pacific island (in which I suspect a significant percentage will die, commit suicide or have their lives otherwise destroyed by the psychological torture of indefinite detention) does not make sense and highlights the hypocrisy of the crocodile tears from both the Opposition and Government. If breast-beating concern for asylum seekers stops at the small number who might die at sea, this “concern” isn’t worth a pinch of shit.

    The Houston Report is not an objective approach to the beaten up issue of asylum seekers but a report with a strict remit- to work out ways to prevent boats coming to Australia. This was what it was commissioned for.

    It’s time we looked at the whole issue afresh. The vast, vast majority of Australians will never meet an asylum seeker and, were it not for the politicisation of the issue and continued mispresention and dehumanisation of asylum seekers in the media, would know or care nothing about them. Instead we are constantly being prompted to be outraged by them, to see them as “queue jumpers” seeing unfair advantage.

    Australia does not take a large number of asylum seekers nor attract a disproportionate number of people arriving by boat. It is an issue of politics more than anything else.

    It’s also time to have a good hard look at how we appear overseas- insecure, ignorant and yes, racist.

    Excising the mainland and stopping the boats might be the answer, but the question is entirely wrong.

  • 16
    pearton@bigpond.com.au
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Greens do run that risk of spurning something they could live with etc. but to blame the current policy on the 10 Greens in parliament, when there are 226 parliamentarians just doesn’t figure. And I repeat that the Greens parliamentarians by definition must represent those that vote for them.
    If political parties stuck to their policies, stated well in advance of elections, in the old-fashioned way, such as in the ‘It’s Time’ days, people may be a little less disillusioned about politics in general.

  • 17
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Pearton - SO no changing to suit the times then - you can only change what you want to do every 3 years?

    And as a Greens voter given the option of only on shore processing isn’t on the table which option do you prefer - the current one being driven by the Houston report or the Malaysian Solution? Because whether you like it or not the Greens had the choice.

  • 18
    Andrew ( )
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Since my post is in moderation I will add another point.
    Although the policy is claimed to be aimed at stopping people drowning at sea, how many people believe that is the main reason?
    May I suggest it has more to do with the cost blowout of processing unscheduled arrivals, especially when lawyers get involved.
    The government has done the right thing to increase the intake to 20,000 and other unscheduled arrivals need to be processed among them.

  • 19
    Simon Roberts
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Jimmy, I’m not advocating for turning back. it cannot be done now or ever again. I’m underlining that it will not work. And as to the conditions in the originating countries getting better. Magic wand?
    I was dealing in shorthand. The long answer is that people will get on boats if there is no other way to get out of Indonesia. They will keep coming, and they cannot be turned back. So we process them in Indonesia, we process thousands and we get them here safely. If people have hope of an alternative they will not get on boats.
    Meanwhile these pathetic deterrence policies are ineffective and fiscally irresponsible, do harm to the asylum seekers by violating their human rights by subjecting them to diabolic conditions, while trashing our reputation, and are obviously creating divisions in our own society that may cause long-term harm for short-term political gain.
    Those who claimed that the Greens were killing people by their opposition to the new regime better have a look at themselves, because this regime is not working and people are still dying.

  • 20
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    All this determination to stop people dying en route to Australia would make more sense to me (and to the prospective die-ees) if people weren’t already dying in refugee camps and as documented or undocumented refugees in Malaysia and Indonesia (and routinely harassed and tortured while alive).

    People wouldn’t be willing to risk their lives on a rickety boat if things weren’t pretty desperate for them where they are.

    Yes, it’s good that the refugee intake has been increased, and it will save those people’s lives. However, it won’t save the ones who will die before the intake comes around to them.

    What are we doing to improve conditions for refugees in regional countries (apart from using Nauru and PNG to lock up those who sought our help)? Even if you think of this issue purely in terms of money, it would cost us a great deal less to subsidize decent refugee processing and support in regional countries, than it does to imprison refugees and deal with the weeping sore of them having no other real choice.

  • 21
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Simon Roberts- “So we process them in Indonesia, we process thousands and we get them here safely. If people have hope of an alternative they will not get on boats.” That is why the Houston report recommended the dramatic increase in our refugee intake, they aren’t just increasing the deterrent, they are also increasing the alternative. I agree the deterrent alone won’t work but combined with the increase in the intake it just might.

    Clytie - “What are we doing to improve conditions for refugees in regional countries (apart from using Nauru and PNG to lock up those who sought our help)?” I am pretty sure as part of the Malaysia solution we funded the construction of an asylum centre - but am happy to be corrected on that.

  • 22
    pearton@bigpond.com.au
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Jimmy- we can’t do better than that? I believe we can, and I had hopes that an ‘expert’ committee might come up with something less simplistic and more humane that these two options.

  • 23
    Andrew ( )
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Well, finally we may be able to have a discussion of the topic without the histeria. That is until the likes of Marilyn perks in. Her tactic seems to be to paint anyone who doesn’t believe in open borders as a rac-ist, thereby intimidating people to have an open and intelligent discussion and trying to shut down the topic.
    I believe most people are supportive of refugees but want it to be done in a fair way. The Australian way. All refugees, of which there are many more than Australia could ever take, get a fair chance, not just those that can afford a people smuggler.
    There is nothing wrong with that attidude.
    The expert panel that recommended these changes to the migration policy have information available to them that the general public are not readily aware of and we need to trust their judgement.
    With the last major problem for the government being addressed I wonder what Tony is going to do? Maybe he’s finished.

  • 24
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Fiona - “the number of asylum seeker lives lost at sea is not 80% of boat arrivals, not even 50% but 4%” Yes when you express it as a percentage it is nothing but how many lives are we talking?
    And what is you “significant percentage will die, commit suicide or have their lives otherwise destroyed by the psychological torture of indefinite detention” and do you have figures too support it?

  • 25
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Pearton - “we can’t do better than that? I believe we can, and I had hopes that an ‘expert’ committee might come up with something less simplistic and more humane that these two options.” That “expert panel included someone who thought we could as well and this is what he came up with. It is an incredibly complex area and unless you have something more concrete that your “beli ef” that there is something better you are stuck with the two options - so as a greens voter which one would you be happier with?

  • 26
    Recalcitrant.Rick
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I am of a number of minds on this issue but none of them agree on going back to the Libs position. Therefore I have another (cruel and inhumane) proposition, but like the Malaysia idea, it might just work. Invite? every refugee currently in the south east asian region to put their name (and families) into a lottery (regardless of their arrival priority) and have a well publicised draw…. Monthly??? you may be one of the lucky 1800 or so, emphasise the risk (both to life and liberty) in taking a boat and and it may just act as a deterent to paying a people smuggler $10,000 when you may just get in sooner, safer, and for free?

  • 27
    Holden Back
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    It is not for eunuchs to boast of their chastity.

  • 28
    gapot
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    The Indonesian military and police are making too much money out of this business to stop. Indonesia expects their public servants to make up their wages by any means they can think of. Thats why tourists in Bali are routinely fleeced by costoms at the airport and the police who make on the spot fines for road infringements.

  • 29
    Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    So Bernard has finally become yet another Canberra press zombie.

    For an alternative view, see the editorial in today’s Age http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/editorial/a-backward-step-beyond-the-pacific-solution-20121031-28kh4.html

    Though the Age editorial strongly support the Greens, the editorial fails to mention them. And Michelle Gratton’s article in today’s Age also fails to mention that the Greens oppose this change.

    In her article in yesterday’s Age on the same subject Michelle also didn’t mention the Greens, and they were not mentioned in a commentary by someone else in yesterday’s paper either.

    There is now only one party who oppose this change to our migration zone, only one party who supports the editorial of The Age, yet the Age has totally ignored them.

    This blatant bias would be hard to believe if it were not there in black and white.

    And Bernard’s change of heart? Like with Peter Garrett, I’m sure there is still a little bit of the old Bernard somewhere inside that could write the perfect rebuttal to the article above.

  • 30
    Andrew ( )
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for posting again before but I thought moderation was. going to take longer to clear.
    How about the simple fact that there are more refugees that want to come to Australia than we could take without incuring large resettlement costs.
    How do you stop those that want a fast way into Australia?
    Maybe some are not even elegible to claim asylum and would have to apply for a migration visa. Can be a lengthy wait unless you have skills urgently needed.
    These problems are not easily resolved and I have my doubts that the measures implimented will be sucessful.
    I tend to think a cheaper solution to discourage boat arrivals would be to
    deny all unscheduled arrivals to have permanent residency status. Hope I’m not sounding cruel. I’ll repeat that I am supportive of genuine refugees.

  • 31
    Andrew ( )
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    @Recalcitrant.Rick
    Perhaps those that miss out on winning will book a boat and pay their money?!

  • 32
    Fiona Katauskas
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jimmy,

    I do not dispute that it’s terrible people die at sea.

    Of course I cannot come up with exact statistics of who may die but the effects of indefinite detention are well documented. There have already been four (that I know of) suicide attempts on Nauru even though it has only been operational for a short period of time.

    I wish to point out the hypocrisy of those claiming to care so deeply about asylum seekers dying at sea but not caring at all about our responsibility in sending them to rot slowly out of sight- whether that be in Nauru or Malaysia or any of the ridiculously-called “Solutions”.

    I also think it’s both astonishing and deeply disturbing that a three word slogan has become an article of faith for both major parties and that the misrepresentation & dehumanisation of asylum seekers is bipartisan.

  • 33
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Fiona - “I wish to point out the hypocrisy of those claiming to care so deeply about asylum seekers dying at sea but not caring at all about our responsibility in sending them to rot slowly out of sight” But you don’t worry about the Hypocrisy of risking the 4% who die at sea to save the 4 people who “attempted” suicide?

    It is easy to decry the solution but hard to provide one of your own.

  • 34
    errolm@gmail.com
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Yes this policy does stem from the Houston report but the whole asylum seeker policy is founded on the premise that those that come by boat are a security danger to Australia whereas those that come by air are not (note air arrivals are not excised). In the 1980s we had a bipartisan policy of accepting people coming by boat from Vietnam - why cant this be the policy now? Cant we help these people escape persecution rather than as we do treat them inhumanely by keeping them in detention indefinitely. Why cant these people after a period of time for health checks (2-4 weeks?) be allowed into the Australian community and we spend a very small fraction of the $10-13M per person under Houston off-shore solution, to support them in our community. Either approval to stay here or repatriation to another country where they would be safe from persecution could follow. After all the numbers are very low to annual intake of 140000-200000 from migration. The whole issue needs a rethink from the very bottom up not a 6 week limited terms-of-reference enquiry. Australia can do better but it will take some intestinal fortitude politicians to see it through.

  • 35
    Saugoof
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    This whole argument, as well as all the Labor/Liberal grandstanding, falls over one crucial hurdle. That refugees are even aware of our policies. Some may be but I would expect the majority are not.

    I’m a well-off middle class person. I’m a news and political junkie and as such I not only have far more access to news and current events than someone fleeing, say, Afghanistan or Irak, has, but I pride myself on being well informed in domestic and foreign affairs. And yet, before I moved to Australia I found it incredibly difficult to access any information on what I would expect here. Despite all the efforts I made and the full 12 months that I spent on preparation, in retrospect I can say that I knew practically nothing.

    The simplest things that people who live here take as understood was complete news for me. For example, that something like a birth certificate, something that in many countries people aren’t even aware exists, is important when dealing with government departments or the whole concept of statutory declarations, etc.

    Basically what I’m trying to say is that most refugees who come on boats would not even be aware that we’ve excised the mainland from maritime arrivals. These policies are designed for domestic voters, not refugees.

    Christmas Island and a bunch of other outlying islands have been excised years ago and they still get plenty of boat arrivals.

  • 36
    James Dean
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Okay, how about this:

    Applying for refugee status after having traveled to Australia or any Australian territory automatically and without appeal voids the possibility of settlement in Australia forever.

    As I type this I see Andrew’s comment above, saying a similar thing. Now, everyone, let’s hear it.

    The region contains many times more refugees, with absolutely valid claims for resettlement, than we can possibly absorb. This is why people risk their life on a boat. They see absolutely no prospect of being resettled unless they take those extreme measures. We can change that only by making resettlement seem possible without getting on a boat - and then also making it impossible if they do.

  • 37
    michael r james
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Good points. Just a minor quibble:
    ” had the Greens not opposed the government’s legislation to enable the Malaysian policy (which had been struck down by the High Court), there’d be no Houston panel and no Nauru and PNG.”

    The High Court decision was not specifically aimed at Malaysia but at Howard’s original legislation enabling Nauru. As such it ruled out Nauru and Manus. The Coalition agreed to change the legislation but hypocritically, on fake humanitarian but actually purely political grounds, only agreed on condition Malaysia remain excluded. It is true that was the point when the Greens had an opportunity to choose a better option and chose not to.

    I support the Malaysian plan. With two abstentions (including Mal Washer who was very emotional about asylum situation) on the wheat board legislation yesterday, I still feel the government didn’t try hard enough, even if the Greens could block it in the Senate (but then the Coalition would have found itself under pressure as well as the Greens).

  • 38
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    @ Fiona, comment 15 - hear hear.

    The global population is increasing alarmingly; it’s unrealistic and naive to expect we can preserve the same portion of land for centuries without showing generosity to desperate people.

  • 39
    Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    So Bernard has finally become yet another Canberra press zombie.

    For an alternative view, see the editorial in today’s Age (the link might one day appear in post 29 if my earlier post passes moderation).

    Though the Age editorial strongly support the Greens, the editorial fails to mention them. And Michelle Gratton’s article in today’s Age also fails to mention that the Greens oppose this change.

    In her article in yesterday’s Age on the same subject Michelle also didn’t mention the Greens, and they were not mentioned in a commentary by someone else in yesterday’s paper either.

    There is now only one party who oppose this change to our migration zone, only one party who supports the editorial of The Age, yet the Age has totally ignored them.

    This blatant bias would be hard to believe if it were not there in black and white.

    And Bernard’s change of heart? Like with Peter Garrett, I’m sure there is still a little bit of the old Bernard somewhere inside that could write the perfect rebuttal to the article above.

  • 40
    Fiona Katauskas
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jimmy,

    My argument is that there isn’t a “Solution”- that to claim there is one flies in the face of what many, many more countries than us face (and in far greater numbers)- the reality that asylum seekers exist and will continue to exist as long as there are wars and repression.

    My “solution” (albeit an entirely unrealistic one, given the media & political beat-ups of this whole thing) would be to admit there is no “solution” and to deal with the various issues in a long-term way without a constant eye on the opinion polls and what Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt say.
    There would have to be have a bipartisan approach to depoliticising this, to take it out of the public arena and not to use it as a political tool with which to beat eachother up.

    I’m no migration expert (obviously) but think these things need to be considered:
    * An understanding of who asylum seekers are and what makes them flee their countries (including looking at the fact that Australia thought Iraq and Afghanistan were in such a bad way that they needed military intervention yet we are supposed to distrust and disbelieve those who leave there as refugees for the same reason)
    * A look at what other comparable western countries do with their asylum seekers. Mandatory detention is unusual as well as extremely costly. Any “solution” is horrendously costly.
    * Try to constructively address issues in the region without acting like a big white bully for whom other countries should bend over backwards to deal with their problems. In demanding we “stop the boats’ coming to our shores we are shifting the problem to countries far less able to deal with them. It’s not just about us.
    * Try to introduce better processing in the region to prevent people getting on boats in the first place.
    *Ditch the fiction that there is a “queue” and a “right way to do it”

    By they way, I’m not in favour of pure open borders and think that that the you’re-either-for-the-toughest solution-or-you-must-be-open-borders dichotomy is dumb and wrong.

    I could go on for ages but have to do some work, dammit. I’m not denying it’s exceedingly difficult but I think “stopping the boats” is the answer to the wrong question and I hate the ugliness I’ve seen in the community about this. It is wrong.

    cheers

    Fiona

  • 41
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Those racist old fools are not experts, we have zero right to stop one person getting on any vessel and once here we have zero right to send them away.

    Bernard is now just another spiv for the liars in Canberra.

  • 42
    Zeke
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Want to stop refugees dying at sea? How about we stop burning their boats? Why would the refugee transporters send seaworthy boats when they know that the boats will be destroyed on arrival in Australia? How about we stop persecuting the crews of the refugee transporter boats? I’m sure only the WORST crews would be sent if they knew they’d be thrown in prison for years.

    Refugees are dying and we are just exacerbating the problem.

    Come on, let’s be serious about saving the lives of refugees, not just cry crocodile tears and send them to South Pacific gulags where they’ll be driven slowly insane.

    I’m ashamed to be Australian. I’m also now thinking of dumping my Crikey subscription. Bernard, we get this rubbish from the mainstream press. Try a bit harder.

  • 43
    CML
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m with those who say it is easy to criticise but much more difficult to come up with a “solution” that will be accepted by the majority of Australian citizens.
    Perhaps all of us would like to think that we can take millions of refugees - whoever lands on our shores. But the reality is we cannot. There are increasing societal pressures, the sheer cost of doing so, and the security concerns to be addressed. Fiona K talks of the few who attempt suicide - what about the few??? who come here, and are accepted as refugees, only to be later discovered as criminals (people smugglers living it up in Canberra as supposed “refugees”, for example). How many more of them are NOT discovered?
    As with everything else, the whole dilemna must include questions of cost. We are a small population trying to cope with tens of thousands of asylum seekers. Where is the money coming from? Those who do not consider this question, will be the same ones who complain loudest when welfare is reduced to single mothers, for example. (Green supporters take note!!) It is just plain unrealistic to think we can do everything, in an economic sense, without raising taxes, or putting a “refugee levy” on income tax.
    That should go down well!!
    The exclusion of those coming by air - the furore is a red herring - arrive in this country with passports and visas. Therefore, they can be identified and deported if found to be travelling with false papers. Not so, the boat people.
    Good article, Bernard, but as everyone should now be aware, there are no easy answers.

  • 44
    Ian
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    The do-gooders among you all had best realise that the only thing a majority, repeat majority,of Australians want is pretty simple.

    Stop jumping over the backfence, entering my house through the back door and stop sitting on my lounge demanding to be watered, fed and housed.”…if you need help…knock on the front door like everyone else.

    What you bleeding hearts, teeth nashers, garment renters and asunder splitters need to realise is that you can cut as crook as you like, for as long as you want, you’re nothing but noise and none will be bothered listening.

  • 45
    Wendy Bacon
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Fiona for your great post. You said much of what I was gong to say.

    Bernard, you deliver a lecture on good policy but you don’t even canvass why the critics of the Malaysian solution were wrong. It was not just the Greens but a whole range of others.

    This is just an extract from an open letter posted after a refugee conference at the UNSW which discussed the issue earlier in the year.

    We strongly urge the UNHCR to condemn a swap deal that would see 800 asylum seekers sent from a country that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia, to a non-signatory country, Malaysia.

    This agreement not only breaches Australia’s international law obligations to protect those seeking asylum but directly undermines UNHCR’s core mandate in a number of significant respects. Firstly, the fundamental rights of those fleeing persecution and seeking protection from a Convention country, including those set out in EXCOM Conclusion 28, will be denied, setting a dangerous global precedent. Secondly, those being removed will be denied the prospect of any real durable solution and instead face the very real prospect of ongoing human rights abuses. Thirdly, by overtly politicising resettlement this agreement further undermines a principled approach to resettlement, based on compelling need, rather than a resettlement state’s vested political interests. Finally, given Australia has stated it will not resettle any of the 800 removed, it will undoubtedly separate families, undermining UNHCR’s attempts to ensure “derivative status’ applies to vulnerable women and children.

    This agreement also has the potential to legitimise the current treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia, a practice that falls seriously below international human rights standards as set out in Articles 2 to 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Again, we strongly urge UNHCR to condemn this agreement.

    Here are the organisations which signed it:
    Act!for!Peace/!National!Council!of!Churches!Australia!
    Amnesty!International!Australia
    ANCORW!Cooperative!Ltd
    Asian!Women!Human!Rights!Council
    Asylum!Seekers!Christmas!Island!(ASCI)
    Centre!for!Refugee!Research
    Coalition!for!Asylum!Seekers!Refugees!and!Detainees!Inc!(CARAD)
    Project!SafeCom!Inc.
    Missionary!Sisters!of!Service
    St!Vincent!de!Paul!Society!National!Council!of!Australia.
    Catholic!Religious!Australia!Sisters!of!Charity!of!Australia
    Researchers!for!Asylum!Seekers!(RAS),!University!of!Melbourne
    Multicultural!Youth!Affairs!Network (MYAN)
    The!Survivors!of!Torture!and!Trauma Assistance!and!Rehabilitation!Service!(SA)
    Catholic!Parish, Bondi!Beach
    SierraCom!consultants
    Townsville!Multicultural!Support!Group!Inc
    Rural!Australians!for!Refugees!Q!Daylesford!and!District!
    La!Trobe!Refugee!Research!Centre,!La!Trobe!University
    Cabramatta!Community!Centre
    Bridge!for!Asylum!Seekers!Foundation
    Footscray!Community!Legal!Centre
    GlobalHealth@UNSW
    Uniting!Church!in!Australia
    Refugee!Council!of!Australia!
    Brigidine!Asylum!Seekers!Project
    Asylum!Seeker!Resource!Centre
    Centacare!Toowoomba
    Architects!for!Peace
    Sydney!Multicultural!Community!Services

    There were many reasons to oppose the Malaysian solution.

    I can’t see what you think sending a few hundred people back to Malaysia in violation of international law would have achieved.

    Even if you were right that some missed some fine print in the Houston report, this does not make it good policy. Some of the commentary, including the fantastic cartoon in Crikey yesterday was in any case symbolic. The whole notion of excision conjures up images of cutting out Australia’s heart which is what we are doing. Of course, this is not the technical meaning. The question is what are the implications of the policy for asylum seekers.

    The low numbers refugees which came in by plane in the first half of the year from Indonesia was a failure of policy ( I heard the ludicrous figure of 52) and I have not heard whether this number has dramatically increased since the Houston panel reported. This would be the best way to stop boats. Maybe a focus for us journalists?

    An approach to policy which involves doing damage to at this early stage hundreds of individuals on behalf of an uncertain and so far not unachieved goal, is very bad policy.

  • 46
    Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    The link to today’s editorial in The Age is now passed by our moderators - see post 29.

  • 47
    Jimmy
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Fiona - Do you think that the things that you list aren’t happening? DO you think that no one is looking ot what is being done elsewhere or trying to understand what makes them flee?
    And by adopting the Houston report they are increasing the intake which would address your “Try to introduce better processing in the region to prevent people getting on boats in the first place.” and looking to adopt the Malaysia solution would address your “Try to constructively address issues in the region without acting like a big white bully for whom other countries should bend over backwards to deal with their problems. In demanding we “stop the boats’ coming to our shores we are shifting the problem to countries far less able to deal with them. It’s not just about us.”

    So this is far from just being tough, being tough is just one plank.

  • 48
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Ian, you put part of your comments in quotation marks. Are these your words? Do you think Australia is your back yard, your lounge room and you are here to masquerade as a spokesman for the “majority, repeat majority”? As far as I know, I’ve never heard of you and you don’t don’t speak for me.
    If you want to represent us (and I’m not asking you to) at least acknowledge that we expect our elected government to pay more than lip service to our membership of the United Nations and our unqualified promise to provide asylum to any and all people genuinely escaping oppression. That means they don’t have to ask permission to come here, only to seek asylum when they do arrive. We’ve already made that promise thank you so get off your high horse, stop making useless noises and try listening for once.

  • 49
    Norman Hanscombe
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    If you understand the emotive blinkers which prevent “True Believers” comprehending the contradictions inherent in their various religious beliefs — - of both theistic and non-theistic varieties — - which send them to the barricades defending whatever makes them feel noble, you can become more tolerant of their intellectual shortcomings.
    The open borders brigade usually don’t think about the fact that even if Australia adopted such a suicidal approach, it couldn’t resolve the very real refugee problems facing the world.
    The same well-intentioned do-gooders don’t stop to assess the fact that (quite apart from negative effects on Australian living standards) the impact these new arrivals seeking superior living standards will have on the planet’s dwindling resources.
    When Human Rights and Refugee Conventions were developed after W.W. II, they were thinking about a world that was VERY different from today.
    Their optimistic views were wonderful. Their dream was far superior to modern realities. It was a dream I shared; but wishing for something doesn’t mean it can be a reality.
    That’s what the well-intentioned Tooth Fairy Brigade may never understand — - until it’s too late.

  • 50
    Ian
    Posted Thursday, 1 November 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    @48

    typical, meaningless do-gooder waffle.

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