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May 12, 2016

Asylum seeker policy must weigh consequences — and that means turnbacks

Refugee advocates and the Coalition want us to believe there are only two options on asylum seekers -- but properly thinking through the moral consequences of policies shows there are more.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Last week, Fairfax columnist Jonathan Holmes wrote an article about offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, deploring “the brutal reality of Nauru and Manus Island” and” the practical evils and the moral bankruptcy of ‘off-shore processing’”. Except, he added, “I don’t believe one should pontificate about a policy unless one has some vaguely practical alternative to propose. I have never had one.”

For his carefully worded thoughts, Holmes was attacked as a racist by the left clickbait’n’mansplaining site New Matilda and assailed on social media. The irony of that abuse was that Holmes, during his stint at Media Watch, did more to expose the media’s lies about asylum seekers than all of his critics put together (he also once labelled me “ridiculous” for attacking News Corp’s campaign against Julia Gillard, so I have no particular brief to defend him). The casual labelling of Holmes as “racist” looks more like moral and intellectual laziness than any sort of considered judgement.

And Fairfax gave comedian Tom Ballard room to respond, accusing Holmes of “solutionism”. What’s that?

“[W]hen decent folks see stories about people in our offshore gulags setting themselves on fire in desperation and are so bold as to suggest that might be an indication of something being horrifically wrong, they can expect to be greeted with a familiar response: ‘Well what’s YOUR solution then, smarty-pants?’… This is blind ‘solutionism’ and it is corroding our public discourse.”

The views of an entertainer on a pressing moral issue wouldn’t normally be worthy of discussion, except that they happen to reflect a larger intellectual enfeeblement that large numbers of progressives have long suffered in relation to asylum seekers.

There’s no such thing as “solutionism” — or if there is, it’s a fig leaf for covering a failure to consider the consequences of one’s actions, or failure to act. All actions, positive or negative, have consequences, and far more so at a governmental than an individual level. The request for an alternative solution is actually a request to compare the consequences of the alternative to the solution currently being employed. Far from “corroding” public discourse, there’s far too little of it. It is that comparison of consequences that few progressives are willing to make. It’s the privilege of the powerless, to not have to weigh up consequences; for policymakers, however, there is no escaping consequences, whether they act or not. It’s intellectually feeble at best, and more likely outright disingenuous, to pretend that a concern for consequences can be dismissed as “solutionist”. It is by solutions, or their lack, that policymakers are judged, regardless of intention. Consequences matter.

It is Holmes himself who notes that solutions are hardly pure phenomena. He correctly explained that the emphasis by advocates of offshore detention, particularly in the Coalition, on the importance of saving asylum seekers’ lives is a very convenient and relatively recent development. Similarly, the professed concern on the part of hardliners for refugees unable to reach Australia by boat is another convenient cover for bigotry, elegantly demonstrated when Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison dramatically slashed Australia’s official humanitarian intake as well as commencing Operation Sovereign Borders to target maritime arrivals.

But the bigotry of hardliners does not render the issues they raise somehow moot. Nor does it make community concerns about the number of boat arrivals irrelevant. For whatever reason, the perception of asylum seekers forcing themselves on Australia by travelling here by boat generates an intense reaction among large sections of the electorate. And intense is not overstating it — a substantial proportion of the electorate, for example, still believe Australia is too soft on asylum seekers even now, despite the rape and child abuse camp we’ve established on Nauru, despite the murder of an inmate on Manus Island, despite rampant self-harm. For politicians who work in a democracy, that can’t be dismissed as of no consequence — unless you think the treatment of several thousand non-Australians should be more important for an Australian political party than the opportunity to improve the lives of 24 million Australians, in which case it becomes a point of principle to become, in effect, a single-issue party.

For policymakers, any decision that might encourage boat arrivals is thus both politically and morally fraught. Whether asylum seeker advocates want to acknowledge it or not, there are far more refugees, and economic migrants who try to pass themselves off as refugees, who can reach Australia than Australia can resettle; the Syrian conflict has maximised “push factors”, along with ongoing instability that we ourselves have created in Iraq. “Let them all come” is not a plausible option. Adopting policies that reward boat arrivals risks trading off the short-term good of ending the detention that causes mental health problems — not to mention rape and child abuse — for the longer-term evil of renewed attempts to reach Australia by boat. The latter will lead to drownings, a toxic reaction in the electorate to a surge in boat arrivals and harm to our broader immigration program and humanitarian intake when we have to deal, again, with a large number of boat arrivals.

But there are some better, or at least less-worse options. The camps on Nauru and Manus Island have been run by an Immigration Department that has adopted a policy of wilful neglect, with the intention of making the camps so hideous that they will serve as a deterrent in themselves. The litany of abuses and outrages on Nauru, in particular, is seemingly endless, and the department stands ever-ready to blame everyone else but itself — the contractors to whom it has outsourced detention centre operation and security, the governments of PNG and Nauru, the media and refugee activists. A policy shift that makes offshore processing less like a torture sentence and more like a place designed to minimise the impact on successful asylum seekers of long-term detention — i.e. safe, with quality mental and physical health services, proper education for children and training for adults — would do much to diminish the outright evil the Immigration Department currently practises in our name.

For good measure, replacing the Immigration Secretary, Mike “it’s all the media’s fault” Pezzullo and a judicial inquiry or royal commission into the behaviour of Immigration bureaucrats who have overseen deaths, rapes and injuries would also be a good start. Given New Zealand has offered to take some of those currently in detention, the government’s nonsensical refusal to allow people recognised as asylum seekers to be resettled there (while pretending that in fact it’s purely the decision of the Nauruan and PNG governments) could also be ended.

And given the government has been successful in turning back boats between here and Indonesia, consideration should be given to at least resettling detained families permanently in Australia. Consider the moral hierarchy of consequences here:

  • encouraging boat arrivals leads to deaths at sea, a massive burden on the budget (if we’re to invest in ensuring every arrival is properly helped to settle into Australia), unfairness for refugees unable to reach Australia by boat and electoral hysteria;
  • long-term detention leads to mental illness, self-harm, damaged children, and the kind of “banality of evil” phenomenon being demonstrated by Immigration bureaucrats; and
  • boat turnbacks risk, but don’t inevitably lead to, some deaths at sea (including of Australian service personnel), damage to relationship with Indonesia and intense and unhealthy secrecy.

Can a boat turnbacks policy by itself address the consequences of appearing to reward boat arrivals and therefore encouraging people to get in boats? Immigration would probably advise that it cannot, that it must be used in combination with a strict policy that no arrivals will ever be resettled here, but given the moral consequences, it is worth considering fully. The government’s policy of “stop the boats” has been successful — so can that success be used to ameliorate other aspects of its policies?

Then there is the need to work with other countries in the region to develop a comprehensive regional solution to refugees. This is the key component of the set of policies recommended by the Gillard government’s panel of Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle, which recommended offshore processing but only as, in effect, a stepping stone to a comprehensive regional agreement.

Since September 2013, the government’s commitment to such an agreement has consisted of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton travelling the smaller countries of the region futilely offering bribes to take a few refugees, except Cambodia, where a wad of $55 million was blown on what turned out to be just one refugee.

There doesn’t need to be a binary let-them-come versus malicious punishment option here — as much as it’s in the interests of the Greens and refugee advocates on the one hand, and the Coalition on the other, to make us think there does. Neither side wants us to think through the moral consequences of the policies they advocate or implement, and whether alternatives are less worse in terms of consequences. It’s not “solutionism” to do that, it’s what any policymaker, and any mature human, must do.

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84 thoughts on “Asylum seeker policy must weigh consequences — and that means turnbacks

  1. Joe Fitzpatrick

    Ten years ago, I blithely argued, “There is no queue”. As a committed lefty, it has been a long, painful and difficult path to accepting that I was naive to argue from such simplistic talking-points. I also used to invoke “racism” as a catch-all criticism of anyone who spoke ill of the “peaceful, beautiful” religion of Islam. I ignored the fact that it’s not a race but a set of ideas that run contrary to most of the principles I, as a progressive advocate, find antithetical.

    This is such a difficult issue for the Left.

    1. Marilyn J Shepherd

      No it is not. You have principles and believe in human rights and the rule of law or you don’t, they aren’t disposable tissues.

  2. Tom Beem

    I seem to recall the John Howard referred to Nauru as “the final solution” or perhaps he said “the final Pacific solution” . Apparently he was not a student of history.

  3. Norman Hanscombe

    Let’s face it. The Crikey et al politically correct lines are continuing to be shown for the disasters they are.

  4. dcparker

    This is the best analysis and article on these fraught subjects I have read anywhere. Where I believe Labor failed was when it agreed to Abbott’s legislation to validate offshore processing (prior to last year’s High Court hearing/decision) without insisting on obtaining some concomitant improvements in the way in which the offshore people were treated and their rights. Whilst I agree with all you have said, may I suggest also the introduction of a “Parliamentary Commissioner” or Ombudsman (or similar, but equally independent) with absolute rights of access to the camps wherever they may be, public reports, and the right to mandate change in management techniques and facilities.
    This would go a long way to eliminating the “gulag” circumstances of these camps.

    1. Marilyn J Shepherd

      which part of ”it’s illegal’ don’t you understand. As it is illegal to take people by force across foreign borders and jail them why would better conditions make it legal.

  5. Michael Jones

    “The latter will lead to drownings, ”

    Prove it. Let’s see your evidence. Let’s see your intellectual rigor.

    Go on. Let’s see a climate-change-esque pile of facts on this claim.

    Oh shit! You don’t have any!!

    Never, ever, ever, have any of you put that claim to even close to the kind of rigor you pompously demand of other issues. You insist on costings, research, independent inquiries, the whole shebang on other issues, but on this issue?

    The laughable idea that we can stop people from drowning IN EVERY OCEAN IN THE WORLD by doing a bunch of racist garbage to a handful of hapless people on a desert island. The idea that we can look out over the vast masses of humanity struggling across the globe and say ‘yep, they’re gonna drown off christmas island unless we get a bunch of kids raped and maybe some people set on fire could help?’.

    This is exactly the kind of nonsense logic that we rightly decry when it’s used to justify belligerent nonsense like ‘preemptive’ invasions of the middle east, or harsh sentencing like the three strikes law. Pseudo Intellectual tough guy talk dressed up as Hard Nosed Pragmatism. What’s next? ‘torture stops terrorism?’

    The massive scope and complexity of this issue, an endless sprawling season of chaos,
    and so-called journalists demand- in the name of intellectual rigor no less- that we engage in of mind-blowing credulity about this, of all claims. The INCREDIBLY POLITICALLY CONVENIENT CLAIM that we are influencing this situation in exactly the way a bunch of racist talkback radio dickheads claim we are.

    A laughable, pitiful, utterly untested claim that has morphed into conventional wisdom after years of groveling on this issue by labor, and labor friendly journalists, and the rows of gutless policy wonks and pundits who saw how the wind was blowing and nodded along with this utterly unproven claim. The apex of Australia’s personal version of the cult of the serious, savvy journalist.

    And the idea that is about winning votes? As if Labor gains seats from doing this? All labor does by buying into this nonsense is let their enemies set the agenda. They can never win a racist-off with the conservatives, don’t be absurd! Every election they lurch to the right on this issue, and can you point to one, even one case where it paid off for them?

    The truth is that when Labor bowed on this issue, they turned an issue that was splitting the conservatives in half, into an issue that split them in half instead. It was a massive own goal, and the deeper they dig themselves in, and the more people defend them, the harder it is for them to get back to a place where they can push an agenda, instead of just reacting to the conservatives.

    In 20 years time everybody will know that this is just another example of a racist policy supposedly done ‘for their own good’ when nothing of the sort is the case. This is our white Australia policy. This is our stolen generations. There were plenty of apologists for the Cruel Kindness of those policies, but nobody has any illusions about them now, or the dubious quality of the rationalizations in their defense.

    Everybody will look back on apologism like this and laugh at the ridiculous idea that we’re really trying to keep these people safe, or doing anything to ensure their safety.

    Oh and GJ putting in the canard about ‘economic refugees’ even though the facts on that matter are VERY clear.

    1. Draco Houston

      Hear hear!
      This whole article is a bunch of stupid bullshit, Bernard. You should be ashamed of yourself.

      This line I found baffling.
      “or whatever reason, the perception of asylum seekers forcing themselves on Australia by travelling here by boat generates an intense reaction among large sections of the electorate. And intense is not overstating it — a substantial proportion of the electorate, for example, still believe Australia is too soft on asylum seekers even now, despite the rape and child abuse camp we’ve established on Nauru, despite the murder of an inmate on Manus Island, despite rampant self-harm.”
      Go back and read what you wrote, Keane. Read it. This is the dumbest argument ever made. How about you look at the polling showing it is a lower priority to voters to actual material things that affect them like the health system, schools, transport, employment and so on. How about, like the above commenter suggested, you look at HISTORY and find that the ALP never, ever, won an election on this?

      Do you call the 2001 election the “Tampa” election too? Good god.

      1. Michael Jones

        Crikey itself has reported on what a low stated priority for voters this issue is. There are numerous indications that this is a fabricated issue politically, but Labor keeps foolishly feeding the flames, making things worse for them with every successive election.

        It’s typical insider logic, the journalists and pollies obsessed with finding the ‘real australian’ (who they are sure, lives somewhere in the west of sydney and has social politics somewhere to the right of ghengis khan), people they are so out of touch with that they have become convinced that talkback radio is a genuine insight into the nation’s mindset.

        But when the racist backlash reared it’s head back in one nation’s day, it wasn’t damaging to labor- it was a huge headache and wedge issue for their opponents! Only successive eras of capitulation, validation, adding credibility to this farce, has made it into a huuuuuge liability for Labor.

        If Labor was smart, it would have capitalized on the other trend showed by one nation- people sick of establishment politics. But they could hardly turn against that. . .

        1. David Hand

          Shorten can lose the election in one easy announcement by following your advice.

    2. Marilyn J Shepherd

      We can’t even stop over 300 people drowning here every year, and if we wanted to stop refugees from drowning we could have rescued them instead of ignoring may days.

  6. James O'Neill

    Australia is still a country that ostensibly acts within a framework of law. That applies to people seeking asylum here who are entitled to be treated in accordance with international law that we have signed up to and profess to uphold. The recent decision of the Supreme Court of PNG laid the hypocrisy of that claim out for all to see. The detention of asylum seekers in PNG (and by extension for all sorts of legal reasons) Nauru, was unconstitutional and illegal. The Court ordered the PNG and Australian governments to cease its activities “forthwith.” That doesn’t mean at some vague time down the track. Ferrovial, the parent company of Transfield immediately responded to the judgment and said they were ceasing detention centre activities. Dutton responded in his usual ignorant manner.
    There are a number of policy options, and if you read Professor Blackshield’s article in last Saturday’s Saturday Paper you will see a number of them set out, all of which have been ignored by Labor and the Coalition.
    Read the judgment Bernard. It is clear that neither of the two major parties have done so.

  7. christine gibson

    I still can’t understand why these people who are seeking asylum can’t be processed in the country that that first escape to. Eg Indonesia /Malaysia. Surely it would be less hassle and save more lives if these people once they arrive in say Indonesia have a designated place to state their case, knowing that if rejected then they either stay put or return home or go somewhere else. Surely with all the money poured into the UN this shouldn’t be that hard to set up a refugee asylum station. If however they do decide to take their chances and pay a smuggler then they will be immediately sent back to,where they came from when arriving in Australian territory . No more detention centres on Manus or Nauru once processed either they are accepted as genuine refugees or they are classified as economic illegal immigrants. And for those who are wanting to leave places like Sri Lanka then we must support them at home with the help,of the UN and process them in their own country after all if we can play cricket against them surely we can assist those who are danger or being persecuted.
    And as for those 12000 Syrian refugees we said we would take just howmany have be given a new chance here ? And why can’t those who have been declared refugees or Manus and Nauru be part of those twelve thousand or just add them to the quota .Surely we aren’t that mean to let people suffer just to,prove a point and if we are then we should be condemned .

    1. Marilyn J Shepherd

      Because there is no law in the planet that says they have to. Afghans for example aren’t allowed to in Pakistan, they live in the shadows and are abused and murdered at will yet we expect them to stay. They are tortured and pushed back from Iran, many are killed.

      The selfish racism in this nation has to stop, we are obligated by laws we wrote to assess all and any people who arrive here no matter how they do it.

      I wish all the lazy old white men would stop bloviating about policy and being hysterical ninnies and look at the law.

      1. David Hand

        Clearly we must change the law Marilyn.

        1. Yclept

          What more laws for the LNP to be above?

  8. Xoanon

    You do weaken your argument by a) admitting that the concern about drownings is a fig leaf, and then b) posing it as one of your own concerns.

    However, I have for a while wondered why we need both boat turn-backs AND a cruel offshore detention regime. If the turn-backs are working, why not disband the camps, settle those within them in Australia and be done with it?

    The conclusion is that the politicians presumably prefer the cruelty to go on, that they enjoy the impression of “doing something”. That’s reprehensible, any way you look at it.

    I’d also argue that it’s the politicians themselves who’ve stoked this toxic hysterical attitude among the voters. When has any of them seriously tried to educate the public about the background to these asylum seekers, especially that our meddling in the Middle East helps cause them to flee?

    As for ‘solutionism’, it seems reasonable that concerned people might pressure our leaders – with their access to funds and the experts of the public service – to devise a new approach that the voters themselves can’t yet envisage. It’s called “leading”.

    1. David Hand

      Your notion that politicians have stoked what you call a “toxic hysterical attitude” among voters is completely unsupported by the facts. In 2008, the ALP dismantled the highly effective border security arrangements amidst tearful self congratulations. There were plenty of speeches by Labor front benchers attempting to “educate the public about the background to these asylum seekers” Alas, 4 years and 50,000 arrivals later, facing electoral annihilation, Labor brought back Rudd with the specific task of saving the furniture by stopping the boats. There is a strong view in middle Australia that the boats must be stopped. Complain if you like but it is politicians bowing to public opinion not the other way round.

      1. Yclept

        And that public opinion has been created by all those great Christians from the LNP who have put the wedge in to make sure that the ALP can’t go against the cruelty of their plan. I’m glad you’re so proud of this disgraceful situation.

        1. David Hand

          Ah yes Yclept. The usual lefty meme that the public are too stupid to form their own opinions about issues of the day. The thing that fascinates me about your post is that you actually seem to believe that public opinion doesn’t exist but is created by elites. While you hold that “everyone is out of step except me” world view, you will continue to make wrong calls about the issues of the day.
          The ALP has been wedged by public opinion, as it was in 2013 when over 4000 boat people a month were arriving.

          1. Yclept

            No David, what the LNP has done has sanctioned the rascists and made it ok for them to come out and hold rallies to convert more to the cause. The elites have always manipulated the masses, otherwise we wouldn’t need the word propaganda.

  9. Phil Allen

    I found this article a breath of fresh air on this topic. Seems my dig at you on Twitter was misplaced, Bernard. Apologies for that.
    That the issue is a “wicked problem” doesn’t mean that anything goes, which was my concern that Holmes appeared to be arguing, although I concede I may have been reading too much into it.
    The simplistic one dimensional “ends justifies the means” mentality surrounding this issue, leaves me cold. And I cannot accept that there is any justification for the mindless cruelty of the current regime and the complete lack of regard for the welfare of people displaced by tyranny, war or, dare I say it, economic deprivation.
    We in this country have a rare privilege in being born into a lifestyle unavailable to the vast majority of the world’s people. To argue that we cannot afford to be generous to the less well off, or that doing so means putting others before “our own” is nonsense. We can do both.
    Thanks for a thoughtful and nuanced article. As for me, I’ll resist the urge to tweet reactively in the future! 🙂

  10. Vincent Matthews

    There’s a majority of Aussies in favour of “turn back the boats” because no leading politician in government or Labour opposition has had the courage to point out that Aussies have nothing to fear from refugees. And the media should be given full access to Manus and Nauru to demonstrate the shocking injustices and cruelty these innocent people have been subjected to. No other nation is better suited to take in these genuine refugees than Australia. Shame on our politicians. ScottMo a Christian? “Do unto others…”

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