A bipartisan asylum policy?

I’m not a regular reader of the online magazine Overland. However this piece did the rounds yesterday and is a thoughtful contribution to the political nature of Australia’s asylum policy.

My reading of the piece; asylum policy will not change until the ALP change their position (of which I agree), because at the moment we have a bipartisan policy (of which I disagree).

I’m an ALP member who agrees with offshore processing and regional frameworks. I also attended the vigil on Sunday night. There is no contradiction in these positions. I’m saddened by where we have ended up as a country on asylum policy and I don’t believe there is an easy way out. As a country, we failed to provide the level of care and protection necessary to those who die seeking asylum, whether that be a young Iranian man on Manus Island or the over 400, largely anonymous, people in the water between Indonesia and Christmas Island over the past two years.

The author, El Gibbs, is talking specially about mandatory detention. I’m going to broaden the discussion to encompass all asylum policy because I don’t believe you can talk about one aspect of this policy without impacting on other parts. This is why I see important differences in the policy approach of the ALP and the Abbott government. I’ll note up the top that therefore that some of the arguments below do not directly relate to her piece, while others do.

Gibbs is correct the ALP are the party who can improve the policy and politics surrounding seeking asylum in Australia. The Greens may have policies to pursue these goals but they cannot form government. The Liberal party, as we have seen over 15 years, are unwilling to consider a humane approach to seeking asylum. 

However Gibbs implies ALP support for hard-line asylum policies – such as mandatory detention – is fixed and internal activism doesn’t work:

In the meantime, activists within the ALP also worked to change policy through the party structures. They were not successful.

I don’t believe this. The ALP’s asylum policies are fluid and have changed significantly over time. While it may seem a long time ago, this speech – New Directions in Detention – just six years ago by Immigration Minister Chris Evans outlined a major reappraisal of mandatory detention in Australia. Over the next three years as the number of people claiming asylum increased, parts of this policy fell away. The Parliamentary Library goes as far to say “the Government’s ‘New Directions in Detention’ policy was never fully implemented on Christmas Island”. Yet there were powerful words in Evans’ speech:

“At my first meeting with Department officials as Minister for Immigration, I asked who was detained at the immigration detention centre on Nauru and at what stage were their claims for asylum. I was told there were eight Burmese and 81 Sri Lankans there. Virtually all of this group had already been assessed as refugees but had been left languishing on Nauru. When I asked why the eight Burmese had not been settled in Australia in accordance with international law there was an embarrassed silence. Eventually the answer emerged. The Howard Government had ordered they stay put. They had been left rotting on Nauru because the Howard Government wanted to maintain the myth that third country settlement was possible.

Sadly, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers had sunk this low.”

He moved many people into the community and improved the process for families, especially children, in detention facilities. Chris Evans undoubtedly improved asylum policy in Australia.

Gibbs is right to say progressive voices were lost in the debate within the ALP in 2012 but she fails to identify why. Chris Evans’ speech highlights how there was great success in re-drawing the boundaries in 2008. Why did this stop and then reverse?

Over the next four years as policies became more ‘tough’ – including refusing to process claims and removing work rights from people in the community – many supporters became increasingly disillusioned. But in addition, many traditionally progressive voices changed their opinion to support some of the new measures implemented.

John Menadue is a former head of the immigration department. He may be an ALP member or he may not be (I don’t know) but he represents a strong progressive voice on asylum policy. This blog post outlines how he changed his position:

“I have not always held the view that those who come to Australia could be transferred and processed in another country. I changed my mind on that partly because of the rapid increase in boat arrivals after the Agreement with Malaysia fell over in 2011. The large number of boat arrivals was reducing public support for a generous and humane refugee program. I came to the view that what was important is that asylum seekers are treated with humanity and that the process is fair and just. The issue of where that processing occurred was a secondary issue.”

These are important contextual factors to account in any discussion of asylum policy, especially by those wishing to pursue wholesale change to the current system. Many voices within the progressive ALP caucus also felt this change. Those who had argued and rallied against the Tampa and Children Overboard (two disgusting pieces of political brinksmanship) slowly changed their position on asylum from a large onshore, community based system to emerging support for offshore processing. Doug Cameron, Laurie Ferguson, Chris Evans, Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong amongst others all shifted their opinion, either substantially or just enough to vote for policy change, on what is the appropriate policy for asylum in Australia.

When Gibbs says activists within the ALP failed, I think she overlooks how the context of the situation changed substantially between 2008 and 2012, as the most hard-line measures were introduced. This didn’t occur in a vacuum especially as the pressure and attraction of government overrode other concerns, such as asylum policy. We can argue whether this is right or wrong or highlights a party which has lost its way. However we must recognise many progressive voices within the party changed their views to such an extent that the Malaysia solution was broadly supported by 2011-12.

Moving on, I want to outline why I don’t see bipartisanship to asylum policy and highlight recent policies which reiterate the previous contention about only the ALP being able to reform asylum policy to a more humane outcome.

I have an increasing utilitarian perspective on the nexus between asylum and resettlement. In government, people are required to make decisions. Consider this: In 2012-13, 20,000 people were provided with a permanent visa and the heavy hand of state support to resettle in Australia. In 2013-14, this number will fall to 13,750. This is the difference in policy which should undoubtedly be given more priority in the current debate. Further, the ALP pledged to increase this number to 27,500 when a regional agreement had been struck with Indonesia.

Increasing the humanitarian quota does not provide free-reign to introduce ever harsher methods of deterrence. Personally, I disagree strongly with mandatory detention in Australia, the withdrawal of work rights and temporary protection visas none of which provide any deterrence. However I agree with offshore processing and a regional framework of resettlement, of which Australia plays the leading role. I also believe Australia should be contributing significantly more resources – in the order of tens’ of millions of dollars – to the deterioration of the Syrian crisis for countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to better share the global burden of civil unrest.

A second important contrast is the difference between the ALP and the Liberal party in how asylum policy is discussed. In the past week, we have seen Scott Morrison blame people seeking asylum for provoking violence, almost inferring the man who died on Manus had it coming. Secondly, in estimates yesterday I heard Senator Cash compare, with a barely covered sense of satisfaction, the provision of pre-natal health facilities in Nauru to those in Australia. 

I listened closely to the language of Chris Evans, Chris Bowen, Brendan O’Connor and Tony Burke as immigration ministers in the ALP governments. I heard them say some things I cringed at and many things I found disturbing. What what I didn’t hear was the argument these people have only themselves to blame or are a national security threat. These are common from the Liberal party and these words – illegal, queue jumper, transferee – seek to cast dispersions across all asylum seekers that they are in the wrong. It is true the ALP have also used these words on occasions but not in a structured, systematic manner to destroy the very essence of seeking asylum. Last year I was skeptical of the focus on these words, believing the Liberals used them only to rile up progressives. I have changed my position since then, believing they are used deliberately to harm.

If you are an opponent of offshore processing and regional solutions, you are right to disagree loudly with the current government and opposition positions on asylum policy. Inhumane, incompetence, overtly political. I disagree but there is an argument to be had.

But we do not have bipartisanship on asylum policy in Australia. We have a government who have militarised what is essentially a social policy. We have a government who, with one of their first acts of government, reduced the humanitarian program. If the Abbott government holds office for two terms, the difference between the two parties will be 37,500 people who have been excluded from Australia. We have a government who talks about asylum seekers as if they are sub-human.

To call this bipartisan is false and frankly, hurtful. Yes, there has been failure by the ALP on this policy but this does not mean future efforts should written off. A regional framework based on close, functional relationships with Indonesia and Malaysia (not relying on PNG and Nauru) combined with a humanitarian program of 20,000 to 40,000 people would radically alter the existing policy landscape. Unfortunately the ability to pursue this stance from opposition is next to impossible.

Finally, a plea. If there are people out there who believe the only way asylum policies will change in Australia is via the ALP then a strong option to consider is joining the ALP. Many progressives find this almost impossible to counter as there are a range of major sticking points, be it on climate policy, asylum policy or economic policy. Personally I held this position for a number of years. However I was convinced by someone passionate this position did not allow any change. I see people inside the ALP who work tirelessly for a change in asylum policy. I don’t agree with their methods or their solutions, but if you do, they desperately need your help.

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