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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.

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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109 comments

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109 thoughts on “The ‘excision’ that isn’t, and why it’s good policy

  1. francho

    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

    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

    > 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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

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

  10. Jimmy

    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.

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