biloela family detention
Kopika, Priya and Tharunicaa (Image: Rebekah Holt)

When the McDonald’s outlet in Roma, five and a half hours west of Brisbane, was in trouble a decade ago, it was a group of Filipino settlers who came to the rescue. Locals didn’t want to work at Macca’s, but a Filipino family was happy to flip burgers. More Filipino families came and now the small community in this bush town keeps the business going.

Roma Chamber of Commerce President Cyril Peet said two months ago, “the integration between the Filipino community and Australians has gelled and that business [McDonald’s] has thrived”. Peet was speaking after the Roma council voted 9-0 to write to Queensland Families and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston, calling for greater spending on migrant and refugee services, and for places like Roma to host more people seeking asylum in Australia.

Roma is five hours south of Biloela, a town with extensive grazing and cropping industries that hugs the western side of the Great Dividing Range. It’s also the place where a Sri Lankan Tamil family — comprising Priya and Nadesalingam and their two Australian-born children Kopika, four, and Tharunicaa, two — lived until they were snatched by Border Force officers 17 months ago and moved to detention in Melbourne.

The family is now on Christmas Island awaiting deportation back to Sri Lanka. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is staring down public sentiment in favour of the family, and using the might of the national government to thwart legal challenges that are underway. Dutton knows communities like Biloela and Roma — and many others west of the range that charts Australia’s east coast — welcome refugees, but he has his political eye directed at the coast and outer suburban districts of Brisbane and Sydney.

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For three decades — since Labor introduced mandatory detention under the Keating government — voters have exhibited deep antipathy towards newcomers, those who seek to “cut in line”, pushing “regular Australians” back. Dutton understands this sentiment as both the minister who ruthlessly enforces the rules and as a minister whose electorate of Dickson includes not just the outer suburban communities Arana Hills, McDowell and Albany Creek but rural and semi-rural places like Samford and Dayboro. It’s a very white electorate with 86% of residents nominating Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa as their birthplace.

When Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, Dutton worked his way into his inner circle, becoming a regular visitor at the eastern suburbs offices of the former member for Wentworth during the summer of 2015/16. He had one message: if you mess with the hard-line asylum seeker policy, your leadership and the government will be in peril. Turnbull listened and gave Dutton everything he wanted, including the mega-security portfolio of Home Affairs. Now Dutton has the architect of “Operation Sovereign Borders”, Scott Morrison, as his boss, and he doesn’t need to worry about securing support anymore.

The cross currents in the asylum seeker and refugee debate (playing against type, former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Sydney radio shock jock Alan Jones are vocal supporters of the Biloela Tamil family) are easily dismissed by Dutton as he prefers to dog whistle to those communities in the outer suburbs and along the east coast.

Dutton is a one-trick pony in politics, playing cards and reciting lines he knows work. It’s why he wrote an uncompromising opinion piece in today’s Courier-Mail reinforcing his tough line.

“It’s not that this family or those in the 68 million figure are unworthy or not sincere in their desire to live in Australia,” he wrote, trying to give himself some sympathetic cover. “The reality is our government, with the support of the majority of Australians, has taken tough decisions over a number of years now to keep our borders secure and people off boats.”

At the same time as Dutton’s opinion piece appeared he dropped a story to The Australian saying there had been a wave of boat intercepts from Sri Lanka — the home country of the Biloela family.

“Sri Lankan boat surge: sixth asylum bid halted,” read the splash headline in The Australian, suiting Dutton’s political aims and giving his hard face towards the Tamil family a policy justification.

Just about every human face put on the asylum seeker saga in Australia — a family torn apart, especially with children involved — is met with stories of often unverified boat intercepts. In the brutal world of asylum seeker politics, the numbers favour Dutton, and he’s not about to give up his one nasty trick.

Dennis Atkins is a freelance writer based in Brisbane, where he was a national political editor during the Howard government. He is filling in for part of the time while Bernard Keane is enjoying a break.