Nov 22, 2012

Deterrence goal locks us onto a path of cruelty

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.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

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.

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75 thoughts on “Deterrence goal locks us onto a path of cruelty

  1. iggy648

    I see Scott Morrison is against giving handouts to asylum seekers. This must mean he favours letting them get jobs. Good man! This is the most humane thing I can remember him saying!

  2. Jenny Haines

    Bernard, just because the lemmings are heading for the cliff, it doesn’t make it right that they are going to go over it. And Labor is heading for the cliff alright, if not electorally, as you can always count on the people sitting in their warm comfortable lounge rooms in marginal seats to judge asylum seekers harshly, then definitely as we become more and more of an international pariah due to our cruelty to refugees and asylum seekers. How can Labor politicians, Left and Right, stand with straight faces and talk about Labor values when they allow such cruelty, such breaches of international obligations, all in the name the need to win an election and the need to appease Mr Tony the No Man Abbott? And none of it is stopping the boats because none of it is addressing the push factors. Labor has lost its way on asylum seekers and I am very ashamed.

  3. Wallace Scott

    Print money to bring the AUD down. Use the money to build infrastructure and housing. Allow asylum seekers overseas to apply for these jobs, and pay a few thoundsand for a special visa to come to Australia instead of paying people smugglers. They need to pass preliminary test and look likely to be accepted as refugee for resettlement when assessment is complete and must work on contract no welfare while awaiting assessment.

    Charge them good tax rate for the government, rental and medical insurance etc. They’ll be happy even if they are charged a lot.

    Kill 3 birds with 1 stone. Less spending on deterrence, increase productivity and government assets, better economic conditions for business as the dollar drop.

    Unfortunately the Green’s proposal won’t work because as we can see Italy has processing centre in Libya yet they still reveive huge amount of boat arrivals and drownings are normal news there.

  4. Wallace Scott

    4th bird, relieve bottle neck pressure and less drownings

  5. beachcomber

    Standing in Lower Manhattan on the Hudson River bank during “Super Storm Sandy”, and telling the waters not to rise. Sticking bandaids on a severed artery. Both are probably more productive than introducing draconian laws to prevent asylum seekers fleeing their homelands. Unless we address the various reasons people flee various countries, nothing we do here will stop people leaving war, famine and persecution, to seek security. Nor should it. We signed up to International Treaties decades ago, and it is disgraceful that domestic politics is seeing the Government and Opposition ignore our obligations.

  6. Ian


    If you are a Labor supporter you might consider ditching them. I strikes me that it has long ago lost it moral integrity and now does only what it feels might best enable it to hang onto power – power not for what it can do with that power to achieve a more equitable and moral society and world around us but power for powers sake. There are more choices than between just evil and the lesser evil out there you know.

  7. shepherdmarilyn

    You lazy moron, they are not overwhelmed by people smugglers, there is no such thing as a fucking people smuggler.

    You have been in Canberra too long and no longer have a clue what you are talking about.

    The Sri Lankans have been the largest group, they sail themselves.

    And the Indonesian crews are not being charged now so who are the people smugglers cretin breathe.

    And how dare you claim based on some ridiculous online Essential poll that 23 million people actually want to pay billions to torture innocent people and that treaty obligations don’t matter.

    They do matter you moron. They are the whole fucking point.

  8. Observation

    Good call Wallace Scott. You have the right attitude and you would think the brains trust of the country would be able to put something together. The state of our governments lack of ability to step up to the plate on the current challenges has me completely deflated. I can see no fertile ground on our political landscape for progressive thinking to take root. Its all a cesspool of self preservation and tunnel visioned stubbornness.
    Our future generations will look back on this time with disgust on how inhumane we became as a nation and how bereft of ideas and visionaries our government had become.

  9. Hunt Ian

    Labor is trying to prevent boat trips for asylum claims in Australia on the ground that these are too dangerous. It would be better to prosecute people smugglers for manslaughter and give them long sentences in Australian gaols for so long as they send people in unsafe boats. This would require cooperation from Indonesian police and a lack of corruption in Indonesia. This seems hard to get.

    Cruelty was the policy of the coalition and will be the policy of the coalition again, so why would anyone ditch Labor for the only govt alternative, a Coalition govt which would be worse than Labor?

    The so-called “Malaysian solution” might make things better, as long it were accompanied with hard guarantees that people would not be sent back to face the persecution that they are escaping. For cynical reasons the Coalition opposes this and the Greens oppose it also, although the only practical alternatives seem much worse.

    In principle, the Greens are correct. If we could prosecute people smugglers for manslaughter, their policy would be much better but if we cannot they are condemning asylum seekers to collaboration with persecutors as we deny people who can’t afford fake passports, bribes to officials and air fares a chance for proper asylum. My hope is that the Greens will decide to conditionally accept the Malaysian solution with a sunset clause, with a guarantee that the govt will simply raise asylum acceptance numbers and improve processing in Indonesia and Malaysia so that people have little incentive to risk their lives in unsafe boats if that fails.

  10. [email protected]

    I agree totally with Jenny – sounds like Bernard is a member of the Labor caucus!

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