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Federal

Nov 1, 2012

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.

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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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