Kopika Murugappan comforts her sister Tharnicaa before she was flown to Perth for medical treatment (Image: AAP/Change.org Australia)

After more than 1000 days in immigration detention, and nearly two years on Christmas Island, a Tamil asylum seeker family could be allowed to return home to Biloela this week.

Releasing the family would be an embarrassing backdown from the Morrison government, which has remained adamant about keeping them in detention and pursuing their deportation to Sri Lanka.

But the government is facing a backbench revolt, and widespread support for the family in the community. The only thing holding them back is the political challenge of managing the optics, making an end to the family’s incarceration look like a dose of compassion.

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Why the ground shifted

After years of doubling down and defending the family’s treatment, at least six Coalition MPs have now publicly called for the family to be resettled in Australia. What’s changed? In part, it’s because the hospitalisation of four-year-old Tharnicaa Murugappan, flown to Perth sick with sepsis, has put the theatrical cruelty of the family’s indefinite detention firmly in the public eye.

But in part, it’s because the political calculus has shifted to favour of compassion.

Peter Dutton, who previously called the children “anchor babies”, is gone from Home Affairs. While his successor, Karen Andrews, defended the family’s detention, she’s no Dutton. Then came Tharnicaa’s hospitalisation, during a relatively quiet news week, at a time when we’re slouching towards an election.

The last week has been a classic semi-stage-managed government tone shift. First, Coalition MPs were anonymously voicing their reservations. Today there are at least six — Trent Zimmerman, Katie Allen, Jason Falinski, Bridget Archer, Ken O’Dowd (whose electorate includes Biloela), and now Barnaby Joyce — who have called for the government to let the family stay in Australia.

Also last week, Attorney-General Michaelia Cash warned about the “consequences of blinking”, in releasing the family. The tension between Cash’s comments and the MPs speaking in the family’s favour is a sign of a tightrope the Coalition is trying to walk, between staying tough on borders while responding to community outrage at the human cost of that unsentimental approach to refugees.

How does the government find a way?

It’s no longer politically tenable for the government to leave the family detained on Christmas Island. The only thing holding them back from sending the family back to Biloela tomorrow isn’t concern about restarting the people smuggling trade, but fear about handling the political optics of such a backdown.

The government is arguably set up for that perfectly now. The decision to release the family rests entirely with Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, who is currently reviewing a brief and will come to a decision within days over whether to use his discretion to release the family. Today, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack confirmed Hawke would make an announcement on the family’s future this week.

Hawke probably gives the government their best option for a politically palatable resolution to an unpalatable situation. Morrison is out of the country. Despite the shift in public option, we’re still far enough from an election for any backlash to blow over.

Hawke’s decision can be isolated from the entire government. And because, as the decision-maker, anything he says could be mobilised against him in a review of that decision, he has an incentive to stay quiet on the case ahead.

He also has an incredibly broad range of options. He could, under his powers in s195A of the Migration Act, grant the whole family any visa under broad public interest grounds. He could lift the bar, and allow the whole family to reapply for visas. He could grant a bridging visa while Tharnicaa’s own protection application is being assessed. Or he could do nothing.

It’s that broadness which might be the government’s best tool in trying to turn a stunning backlash, and an admission of moral failure, into a political victory.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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