Michael Pezzullo

Department of Immigration secretary Michael Pezzullo has said the government will not give in to “moral lecturing” from doctors, lawyers, churches and state governments that have pleaded to allow 267 asylum seekers bound for Nauru to stay in Australia.

Last week’s High Court decision upholding the government’s framework for offshore detention for asylum seekers who seek to get to Australia by boat means that 267 asylum seekers, including 37 babies and 54 other children, currently in Australia for medical treatment could be sent back to Nauru any day now.

Refugee advocates, churches, doctors and the Human Rights Commission are just some of those pleading with the government to allow the asylum seekers to stay in Australia. Over the weekend, the Labor premiers of Victoria and South Australia, Daniel Andrews and Jay Weatherill, both told Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that their states would be willing to accommodate and pay the costs for the asylum seekers to stay in Australia. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Liberal premiers Mike Baird (NSW) and Will Hodgman (Tasmania) have also called for the asylum seekers to stay.

The federal government does not appear to be for turning, however. In a Senate estimates hearing this morning, Pezzullo reiterated that asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat would never be settled in Australia, and if a boat is not turned back, the best its passengers can hope for is to be taken to Papua New Guinea or Nauru. He said this was a “durable solution” that would not be compromised by public campaigns like the #letthemstay movement:

“No amount of moral lecturing from those who seem unable to comprehend the negative consequences of an open borders policy will bring forth those solutions. There is no compassion in giving people false hope.”

Pezzullo said the government was now engaged in “quiet diplomacy” including possibly resettling the asylum seekers in a third country, or persuading them to go back to their country of origin. There would be no “bulk” return of asylum seekers to Nauru as it would not be appropriate, he said. The secretary said the handling of the 267 asylum seekers needed to be done quietly and on a case-by-case basis, so as to not give people smugglers a belief that there was a way to get around Australia’s strict border protection policy. Pezzullo told estimates:

“Yielding to emotional gestures in this area of public administration simply reduces the margin for discretionary action which is able to be employed by those people who are actually charged with dealing with the problem.”

Pezzullo later clarified that his comments were not directed specifically at the state premiers, but were more “general”. He said the department did not have a view on letters sent from state premiers to the Prime Minister.

Pezzullo said no asylum seekers had been transferred back to Nauru yet as a result of the High Court decision.

He also took aim at “advocacy parading as journalism”, which often led to incorrect reporting, such as that of the claims of a five-year-old allegedly raped on Nauru. He said the department had investigated the claim, and the incident was related to a child much older than five. He said the alleged assailant was another child two years older than the complainant.

On ABC’s Insiders program yesterday, Turnbull said that the government needed to choose its words carefully around the case of the 267 asylum seekers because people smugglers could twist the words to make other asylum seekers believe that there was a way to Australia by boat:

“What I’m not going to do is give one skerrick of encouragement to those criminals, those people smugglers, who are preying on vulnerable people and seeking to take their money, put them on the high seas in boats where like as not, they will drown.”

Last week Lateline reported on a leaked cabinet document that suggested the government was looking to make it tougher for asylum seekers to get permanent residency in Australia, and an increase in the monitoring of migrants to Australia. Pezzullo told the estimates hearing the leak had been referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation on Friday, but said the document had been prepared by the department for cabinet and had yet to be sent to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, or Turnbull.

Pezzullo said he had only been made aware of the leak when Lateline  began making inquiries about the document. Fairfax also reported it had “obtained” the document, but Pezzullo said it was unclear whether Fairfax had also received a copy, or had just “obtained” a copy of the document from the Lateline website. “I can’t be sure … but it appears to be a singular document that has regrettably been disclosed in an unauthorised fashion,” he said. 

Crikey is live-blogging estimates updates as they happen. Follow our live blog for up-to-the-minute news from the latest round of Senate estimates.

Peter Fray

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