Christmas Island shows: Refugee props for Scott Morrison

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With the Federal Election almost here, Scott Morrison is remaining firm on his ridiculous refugee policy, even at taxpayers' expense, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE MAN IS A DELIGHT and a fitting Prime Minister for a political class which sees refugees and asylum seekers as mines of exploitation. They are the props for political survival, to be moved or simply removed in endless fashion as fear of the unknown is stirred with an advertising man’s commitment. 

There was one fundamental irregularity with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s anti-refugee show regarding Christmas Island — the quarry would not be showing up. The recently re-opened facility, in other words, would be closing in July. This, despite the deployment of 140 contractors and 14 medical staff, not to mention the promise over four years of $1.4 billion to spruce up the detention centre and keep it open in anticipation of the barbaric sea hordes.

It had, in other words, been one of the great government swindles, involving a dedicated pinching from the treasury, the removal of money from the purse which did much to suggest that the Coalition Government and financial prudence are two very different concepts to juggle. This entire profligate exercise entailed the creation of a facility of torment without victims, yet funded to the tune of $185 million.

For an administration obsessed about putting Australia’s budget books back in the black and giving the country a haloed surplus (as if surpluses, in of themselves, mean much), this had been risible. Rather than being the show of a sober captain steadying the wobbles of the economic ship, this was pure, drunken indulgence ahead of a Federal Election.

The explanation for this reversal from Morrison was pure thug, albeit weakly put, as he said with utter obliqueness to reporters in Sydney on Sunday:

“It is providing a deterrent to those who have looked to game the system. The fact you’ve seen so few people now seeking to game the system, when advocates and others said they would be coming each and every day, that hasn’t happened because of the actions we’ve taken as a government.”

Morrison was also keen to blame the advisors, saying it was not his Government’s suggestion to re-open the island facility, but:

“...the recommendation of the Department of Home Affairs that this was necessary to address what occurred in the parliament by the Labor Party voting to weaken our borders.” 

Such a shallow understanding ignores the cardinal principle of collective cabinet responsibility, one that does not so much pour muck on the misguided giver of advice, but the unwise executor of it.

When the current man overseeing the money bags, treasurer Josh Frydenberg, was pressed about the wasteful and knee-jerk nature of the response, he repeated the Prime Minister’s mantra with the ideological conviction: 

“Whether it’s in our turn-backs, whether it’s in offshore processing or whether it’s with Christmas Island, we are absolutely focused on ensuring there is no repeat of Labor’s disastrous border protection policies.”

It is worth noting the original reasons behind Morrison’s decision to re-open a detention centre that had only recently closed. The passage of the Medevac legislation in February, which had been so heavily amended as to make its expansive application impossible, was said to weaken the barriers of Fortress Australia. Given that it only governed transfers regarding the current inmates on Manus and Nauru, this was not only a moot point but a disingenuous one. To date, only one person has been evacuated to the mainland, bypassing Christmas Island because of the specific nature of the care required.

The Prime Minister, instead, got good digging into the possibilities of exploitation: 

What followed was a meeting of the National Security Committee (because that’s what a small number of refugees and asylum seekers are in Morrisonland — a national security matter). He duly informed the public that he had ‘adopted the advice of our security and border protection officials to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre’. This, he confirmed, was a direct response to ‘the mess Bill Shorten and Labor made’.

The visit to the facility in March was suitably vulgar and sadistic. Morrison was holding court with the media and taking them through the facility, tailed by official photographer Adam Taylor

As journalist Airlie Walsh noted:

“The view inside the razor wire seen for the first time, as the Prime Minister led journalists on a tour of the Christmas Island detention centre now back in business.” 

At the press conference, Morrison thanked Bill Shorten. “The last thing I ever wanted to do was open it.” He wanted to make sure that he “personally” pay the facility a visit to see that it was ready.

Mr Deterrence, in full machismo, was taking the platform to threaten:

“If you seek to come to Australia illegally by boat, we will turn the boat back and we will transfer you to Nauru if you sought to come that way. And nothing on that score has changed.”

The brutal cavalier conduct of the Morrison Government, along with its predecessors, demonstrates the fundamental problem of an inhumane refugee policy. Bleeding hearts and compassionate types need not drain the Treasury for good causes, while inhumane policy can be equally loutish and expensive.

Humanitarian policies, in terms of education, training and integration, can be strikingly efficient and beneficial for the commonwealth; those focused on pure deterrence can be psychologically damaging and fail in their ultimate purpose.

What the Christmas Island deception reveals, along with the entire offshore processing regime embraced with bipartisan heartiness in Australia, is that the camp regime designed against maritime arrivals is extortionate without necessarily being effective. With costings of around $1,600 a day to house asylum seekers on Manus Island, an amount excluding food and welfare services, the notion of financial sensibility must finally be put to rest. Closing the briefly re-opened Christmas Island facility should be the prelude to a complete abandonment of the entire approach.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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