My thoughts on Richard Marles at the National Press Club

You can think offshore processing is akin to state-sponsored criminality. You can think all asylum seekers are simply economic migrants.

Whatever you think, the fact Richard Marles is talking about his policy area is a positive. The easiest thing in the world would be to go quiet. Avoid the spotlight. Refuse to respond.

A National Press Club address is an invitation to engage.

Despite this initial good news, Marles’ speech contains grains of difficulty, multiple truths to reconcile and points to an uncertain future.

Marles outlined three values – compassion, fairness and generosity – to provide the foundation of ALP policy on asylum. Yet every example he cites is easily responded to by ALP members and politicians opposed to offshore processing and settlement.

“Compassion does lead us to seek an end to the loss of life at sea” said Marles, but what about Reza Berati they say?

“Fairness leads us to empower the UNHCR in helping us make the choice of who should qualify for our humanitarian program rather than people smugglers”, said Marles, but what about those without access to the UNHCR, in Quetta and Tehran?

“Generosity leads us to increase our humanitarian program”, said Marles. What about the generosity to those stuck in Java?

Most forcefully, “A fundamental maxim: that we as a country should not harm people”, said Marles. But, Shadow Minister, what about the claim up to half of those being detained offshore are suffering from “significant depression, stress or anxiety“? What about the fact the average life expectancy in Papua New Guinea is nearly two decades less than Australia?

There is no objective position in this debate. To bifurcate them as we do is a disservice to the underlying complexities of how people move between and within countries.

I side more closely with Richard Marles in this debate but it is not either/or. More meaningfully, he is right to identify the complexities of the policy and the simplicity of the politics.

He understands the conflict inherent in his words:

There are many voices in the debate today calling for the closure of Australia’s offshore processing.

These voices speak from compassion. And I respect them and recognise the humanity they bring to a terrible debate.

But if compassion is our touchstone, I cannot see how Australia does not accept an obligation surrounding this terrible journey.

“And through it all we must ensure that we never harm people as a form of deterrence.”

Deterrence, as many discover too late in the journey, is a fickle beast. Some policies designed to deter – such as Temporary Protection Visas – are found wanting. They inflict cruelty as they don’t deter and cause harm.

Other policies to deter – such as offshore resettlement – appear, initially at least, to have more power to deter.

Australia is beautiful and rich. A place where dreams are made in the third world. A land of proverbial milk and honey. Papua New Guinea and Cambodia are anything but. They are racked with violence and exist within a fragile political environment. This is harmful. A young man sent to Port Moresby is harmed by not being able to join our society in Australia. His life is shortened by this government policy.

To deter is to harm. This is because relative to Australia, almost anywhere is somewhere less.

And yet, there is a place for this policy. Deterrence is at the heart of global asylum policies.

I do not expect an elected member of parliament to publicly exhort the Australian government to harm asylum seekers. Words have long been the most effective weapon in politics and speaking these words would end Mr Marles’ tenure.

But they are important to how we understand Australia’s current policy framework on seeking asylum.

Deterrence equals harm. To be deterred is to not reach Australia. In this sense, it is hard to see how compassion, fairness and generosity reconcile with deterrence.

But this is what a concrete regional policy must look like. A system where the nation-state – governments across the region – dictate the movement of people. Policy coordination on small things, like visas, will create the foundations for a more substantial policy of burden sharing. Burden sharing is the ultimate goal of any regional policy and we are a long way from there. Unfortunately for Richard Marles, this is not something easily achieved from Opposition. Platitudes and the right signs are about as much as one can do.

Towing back boats to southern Java is a short-term measure which will not stand the test of time. Refusing to resettle asylum seekers in Australia is also likely to call into this category. An ‘all or nothing’ approach to deterrence is likely to fail because its divisive, expensive and cannot be sustained without the war-like environment we have dazzled ourselves into.

If you believe, as I do, that the attraction of Australia to asylum seekers will persist over time, the current set of policies is inadequate, insufficient. This is Richard Marles’ best way forward. This is the ALP’s best way forward. This is Australia’s best way forward.

Marles’ words on the government ring loud and clear. Yet “political opportunism” is an easy term to defend when you have “stopped the boats”. Malaysia is an afterthought if Cambodia exists in the here and now. These are battles are already years old and it shows. But they are critical.

Despite the protests of the then-Opposition, the Malaysia Solution was, and remains, the starting point for asylum policy in South East Asia. Australia takes the primary share of responsibility in terms of settling people. Other countries in the region lessen their responsibility while implementing other measures designed to limit irregular movements. Unlike PNG or Cambodia, a policy based on the primary tenets of the Malaysia Solution provides for improved, yet imperfect, environment where regionalism can play the overriding role.

This is deterrence, with softer edges and an ability to survive the next election cycle. The potential benefits are massive. Over a hundred thousand asylum seekers in Malaysia stand to benefit from that government being drawn into a regional framework. Using leverage in this system, Australia may be able to prod and poke forward rights which we take for granted. Engagement creates this opportunity. Our current system appears to foster resentment rather than opportunity. We are in no position to help those most vulnerable in the region because we are disengaged.

No-one is able to prosecute the brief in Marles’ possession. He is not debating Scott Morrison. He is debating nearly 15 years of struggle, an issue which divides the ALP unlike any other. When he does engage Scott Morrison – by promoting the ‘scoreboard’, tallying death at seas – Marles’ appears morbid to his own supporters who want a simple ideological hero, not a man pointing to how many days have passed without boats.

This isn’t easy or pleasant. Marles’ does not argue with intent on the government’s position on Manus Island because his position does not allow it.

But his words from today at the National Press Club, combined with real policy difference like the massive disparity in numbers under the humanitarian program, will help.

At the moment, Australia has the neither an approach to asylum policy steeped in a commitment to human rights or one infused with utilitarian logic. I hope this changes and that as a country, we muddle through to somewhere better.

2 thoughts on “My thoughts on Richard Marles at the National Press Club

  1. This is complete and utter crap. The refugee convention and associated laws demand that all signatory nations abide by it and assess all those in our territory.

    There is simply no such thing as refugee deterrence, human trading, people smugglers or any of the other racist lies Marles goes on about,

    Do any of you whiney old white men ever stop to think what would happened if all nations decided to do what we do instead of doing what we promised to do.

    Fair dinkum, our own laws state that we must assess who arrives, it has zero to do with the UNHCR, that is a small voluntary program outside the refugee convention.

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