The government has no alternatives in its treatment of asylum seekers other than deterrence. It will stick to his guns no matter the public outcry over camp conditions.
That the government’s revamped Pacific Solution always risked being both less effective and more brutal than the Malaysian policy overturned by an unusual combination of the High Court, refugee advocates, the Greens and the Coalition was apparent from the moment the Houston panel presented its report. So far, that’s exactly how it’s panned out.
The government doesn’t, however, have a political problem arising from the cruelty of its Nauru and Manus Island facilities, whatever the constant criticism from the Left (especially the meaningless, irrelevant and inaccurate claim that we are not meeting our treaty obligations) or on social media. As an issue of importance to voters, asylum seekers has actually diminished in the last five months, Essential Media found this week. Indeed, there may be many voters who are only too happy to hear that asylum seekers are suffering from poor conditions on Nauru.
Moreover, whatever the government might say, it is in its interests for the media to detail how bad things are there, in the hope that a deterrent message reaches would be asylum seekers via relatives and communities in Australia. Complaining that conditions on Nauru are cruel misses the point: they are supposed to be cruel, sufficiently cruel that they will deter people from trying to come here by boat.
Whether that holds once an asylum seeker takes their own life, as may well be the case the longer they remain in a state of uncertainty on Nauru, is something we hopefully never learn.
But the government’s admission yesterday that it had, in effect, been overwhelmed by people smugglers and would be resurrecting a form of Temporary Protection Visa for those people it wasn’t able to (yet) fit onto Nauru or Manus Island resets the political problem. We now have virtual offshore processing. Whatever the deterrent effects, dumping asylum seekers on Nauru and in PNG had the political value of exporting the problem. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s no longer the case.
Nonetheless, the government could not have done anything else. It is locked into the policy. It has no alternatives: its own, preferred Malaysian Solution, which would have been both more effective and less inhumane, has been wrecked (the Greens should dwell on that as they whip themselves into a frenzy over the current policy); the Coalition’s policy is no different, except for the weird fantasy of turning back the boats, which Tony Abbott can’t even bring himself to broach with the Indonesian president, and the only plan coming from the Left (and some on the libertarian Right) is to essentially throw open Australia’s borders via a processing centre in Indonesia.
The only successful part of the government’s policy has been returning hundreds of illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka, who despite a campaign by some to portray them as victims of a brutal victor in the civil war in that country, have no claims to asylum.
Locked into the objective of deterrence, the government has in a way handed policy to people smugglers. The more boats they try to send, the more the government will have to do to make life inhospitable for those who arrive. It is a path that has already taken this government beyond the boundaries pushed by the Howard government, and it may take them to places still less comfortable as time goes on. There is no realistic choice.