refugees Manus
Refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani (Image: Amnesty International)

Any time you think the situation for refugees and people seeking safe harbor in Australia can’t possibly get any worse, it always does. This has been the safest bet in bipartisan refugee policy for as long as I can remember. No matter how pointlessly counterproductive or cruel the strategy for destroying the physical and mental health of refugees in our detention camps, there was always an Abbott or a Dutton out there trying to make it worse.

So you’d want to be well careful before declaring a change in the winds, but events of the last few weeks are cause not just for hope but for a surge of effort. This is obviously not because Scott Morrison — or whoever Labor’s spokesperson is — has had an attack of conscience. It’s because the enduring campaign for change is really starting to bite electorally.

Somewhere up ahead, there is a tipping point where suddenly political advantage comes from demonstrating humanity rather than working to extinguish it. At that point, change will happen fast.

We’re not at that point yet. The Greens and House of Representatives crossbenchers introduced a bill in mid-October to immediately evacuate children and their families to Australia to place them in medical care. With major party support, the bill could have passed the parliament in a single sitting day. In a less toxic political environment, there would be no need for a bill at all: the government would do it in one airlift. Instead, the government and “opposition” worked together to kill the initiative.

Nonetheless, there are spreading hairline cracks in the obscene armour of Australia’s migration policy, cracks that weren’t there a month ago.

Labor proposed a bill to make it easier to transfer imprisoned asylum seeker kids to Australia on a case-by-case basis, on doctors’ advice. Morrison opened the possibility of accepting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s offer to settle people in New Zealand/Aotearoa, albeit with a malicious “you’ll never come to Australia” sting in the tail. Everyone is suddenly claiming they want to get at least the kids into Australia, but can’t because “reasons”.

The proximate reason for these shifts? Increasingly vocal dissidents within the major parties looking to abate some of the horrors unfolding on the prison islands. Determined Greens and independents arguing against the deadly major party consensus, and winning audiences. The reason the respective major party leadership teams may be listening right now? The political earthquake in Wentworth, where history got made and the creepy extremists who have hollowed out the Liberal Party finally got a lesson in realpolitik.

Perhaps the political benefits of destroying innocent people are wearing off. Perhaps the fading power of the most strident race-hate amplifiers in the Murdoch press and talkback radio has been noticed. Perhaps the dedication of thousands of campaigners and regular people around the country is at last moving the needle back in the direction of humanity. Most importantly, hearing directly from some of the people in harm’s way — people like Behrouz Boochani and Eaten Fish — has had an impact on the campaign of dehumanisation that is the primary enabler of Australia’s immigration policy.

The media and political impact of nearly 6000 doctors demanding the government cease deliberately harming children tips the scales further. Following their eviction from Nauru by local authorities, the normally apolitical Médecins Sans Frontières has joined the fight, further isolating Morrison and Shorten.

Another sign of the changing sentiment may be the preliminary attempts to rewrite history that always portend big policy shifts. Kevin Rudd’s tweet that “this govt is just cruel” for leaving people in detention for more than a year is a sign that his notorious 2013 “you’ll never be settled in Australia” announcement may be on its way down the memory hole. If political amnesia is what’s necessary for senior Labor figures to start campaigning against cruelty, so be it. Whatever gets people off the islands.  

In a back-handed way, even the proliferation of abusive, pro-detention sock-puppet accounts online is a grim cause for hope. Someone out there somewhere has made the judgement that the Australian public is displaying insufficient amounts of hate for asylum seekers, such that they’re having to spend money to inflate it artificially.

It is way past time for cautious gestures, tactical zigzags and self-aggrandising tweets; people need to be evacuated to Australia, this afternoon, and given medical support, a settlement plan and restitution for what we’ve put them through. But we shouldn’t miss the importance of this moment, because these spreading hairline cracks are the results of years of work by refugee rights networks and their allies in and out of parliament, and most of all by the extraordinary courage of the people trapped behind the wire. The government knows that the more people know the truth, the less tenable its atrocities become, which is presumably why it blocked Greens immigration spokesperson Senator Nick McKim’s proposed visit to Nauru this week.

The tipping point is out there, and the simplest way to bring it about is to put the fear of god into the Labor Party that seats will continue to fall to Greens and independents until it shows some spine and withdraws support for these human rights abuses. That fear won’t come from inside parliament. It will come from the actions of each of us, individually and collectively, to tilt the table, to give our allies inside the parliament the momentum and the numbers they need to widen these hairline cracks and bring this thing down.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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