Fixation With Turn Backs Misses The Point

Anthony Albanese votes against boat turnbacks. But Manus Island detention is fine.

Anthony Albanese votes against boat turnbacks. But Manus Island detention is fine.

Within Labor Party ranks the debate about asylum seekers can be accurately contextualized as an attempt to find the right balance of compassion and pragmatism. The same can be said for some members of the Liberal Party, but others are wholly guilty of using the plight of waterborne asylum seekers to prosecute xenophobic agenda.

Recently the Labor Party conference debated whether to rule out towing intercepted asylum seeker vessels back to Indonesia.   Successive speakers from the left faction spoke of the need to show compassion to refugees, to be fair, to treat their fellow man with basic human decency. These are all admirable sentiments but that they were employed in a debate about turning back boats highlights Australia’s fixation with this particular element of asylum seeker policy, a fixation which completely misses the point.

Turning back boats is not the harshest element of the government’s approach to asylum seekers, nor is it the most effective deterrent. It was a key plank in John Howard’s so called Pacific Solution because, prior to 2013, genuine asylum seekers who made it to Christmas Island or the Australian mainland were legally to be resettled in Australia. Intercepting the vessels and transporting the travellers either back to Indonesia, or to Nauru for offshore processing was therefore necessary in order to create a situation whereby asylum seekers would not travel to Australia by boat with an expectation of getting permanent residency once they arrived.

This is no longer the case, in 2013 the newly reinstated Rudd government, changed the rules, to use Rudd’s parlance.  From that point on, no new arrivals would be resettled in Australia, whether they were intercepted on water, at Christmas Island or on the Australian mainland. If their claims for asylum were rejected they would be returned to their country of origin. If they were accepted they would be resettled in Papua New Guinea. The promise of Australian resettlement was removed and before long the numbers of boats began to decrease. It also meant that genuine refugees were being resettled in a country that lacked the infrastructure to accommodate the dramatic increase in its immigration intake, and in which homosexuality was a crime punishable by corporal punishment.

While the Gillard government wrestled with the East Timor, Malaysia and finally Pacific MK II solutions turn backs may possibly have formed an effective deterrent. Theoretically if vessels were intercepted either to be taken back to Indonesia or a third country for processing, the promise of Australian residency would be taken off the table. Instead the Gillard government went for a “deterrence by cruelty” option. Making asylum seekers spend inordinate amounts of time in hellholes while their claims were being processed. It caused, and still causes, immeasurable suffering and trauma but the end goal of Australian residency remained and it failed as a deterrent.

As for compassion, turning back boats is not the main source of trauma or suffering, compared to detention on Manus it barely registers. None of which is to say that being on a towed boat would be anything short of horrific, but it is little worse than being on a boat that wasn’t being towed back, and unlike Manus it is a very temporary arrangement. Somewhere, somehow it has become received wisdom that Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard refused to turn back boats because it was a bridge too far, it was too cruel. In fact neither Rudd nor Gillard had any humanitarian objections to turnbacks.

In 2007 Rudd, then opposition leader, announced plans to shut down Nauru detention centre, abolish temporary protection visas and scrap detention debt for humanitarian reasons. Turnbacks remained a part of Labor’s platform. Once in government however they received advice, first from the public service and later from the Houston committee that boat turnbacks were not feasible. Their level of risk meant they failed the cost benefit analysis. Labor were concerned that asylum seekers might sabotage the vessels they were travelling on and in put the lives of Navy personnel at risk.  If the suffering of asylum seekers on towback vessels was the primary argument against it, the Rudd government would not have hesitated to continue turn backs in 2007. It was the advice from the department of immigration that it was unfeasibly dangerous without cooperation from Indonesia.

And yet while this battle rages on and the rhetoric of compassion and cruelty is doled out in enormous portions, nobody within Labor appears to be at all interested in debating the real human rights concerns: offshore processing and offshore resettlement. So what’s it all about? If the Labor left is prepared to support the continuation of Manus Island, Nauru and the so called Papua New Guinea situation  then this debate is hollow as they have already adopted the harshest components of the current government’s asylum seeker regime.

If the intention is to retain some compassionate edge over the Liberal Party while broadly accepting the principles of “deterrence by harshness”, fine, but opposing towbacks simply doesn’t achieve this. In fact in this regard the Labor Right are far more adept than the Left. Matching the Liberal policy then ramping up the size of the humanitarian intake puts some genuine space between the two major parties. Perhaps I’m missing a more cynical angle to it.


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