Politics Analysis

Coalition and News Corp attempt to keep fear of asylum seekers alive

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Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Paterson spoke to Sky News about the Coalition's refugee policy (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Coalition has used Sky News as a platform to maintain its policy of fearmongering, spouting misinformation and critcising the Labor Government, writes Dr Abul Rizvi.

IN THIS INTERVIEW with Murdoch journalist Sharri Markson, Shadow Home Affairs Minister James Paterson talks about the “three pillars” of the Coalition’s boat policy but then adds a new pillar. Apparently, it is not only necessary to have boat turnbacks, temporary protection visas (TPVs) and offshore processing but now it is also important to keep accepted refugees who arrived by boat in offshore detention for a long time before they are resettled.

Paterson says to Markson that offshore processing shouldn’t be used as a “quick stop or quick holiday on the way to a first world country”.

There is no evidence that this is the Albanese Government’s policy. Nor is there any evidence there is a need to keep people who have been found to be genuine refugees in offshore detention for the almost decade that the Coalition Government did.

The asylum seekers who were taken to Nauru and Manus after the Tampa was stopped in 2001 were resettled in New Zealand or brought to Australia as soon as they were found to be refugees. That happened gradually over a two-year period. Many were re-settled much more quickly as New Zealand agreed to accept a significant number of refugees for resettlement in 2002. 

That did not restart the boats. There was no need to keep the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus for any longer than it took to process their applications. The boats did not restart just because those who were found to be refugees were quickly resettled in New Zealand or because they were brought to Australia.

The boats did not restart until 2008 when the first Rudd Government abolished all aspects of the Howard Government’s boat policy. Boat arrivals accelerated significantly when Abbott and the Greens combined in Parliament to scuttle the Gillard Government’s Malaysia Agreement — something Coalition ministers, the Greens and asylum advocates hate being mentioned.

Boat arrivals slowed markedly when the second Rudd Government reintroduced offshore processing and stopped completely when Abbott/Morrison reimplemented turnbacks.

The lesson of history is that policy in this space should be just enough to prevent a resurgence of a large number of people taking to boats.

Going beyond what is absolutely necessary is just playing politics and a mixture of gratuitous cruelty, dog-whistling and a waste of billions of taxpayer dollars as the Coalition Government demonstrated. It is Paterson’s way to justify why it took so many years for the Coalition Government to resettle the refugees on Manus and Nauru, and why the Coalition refused to accept New Zealand’s offer (accepted by the Gillard Government but rejected by the Abbott Government) to resettle 150 refugees per annum.

Paterson also desperately tries to explain why the Albanese Government’s decision to abolish TPVs has not resulted in any actual boat arrivals despite the Coalition’s frantic pre-election fearmongering of that leading to an armada of boats. He points to a brief increase in reported boat ventures that were turned back by the Navy as if that justified the Coalition’s determination to keep recognised refugees on TPVs for the rest of their lives — a policy that would have just led to festering resentment and anger. 

The rest of his interview with Markson is total confusion about the different roles the Christmas Island Detention Centre and the Nauru Offshore Processing Centre play.

Apart from the time it was used to house the Biloela family for absolutely no good reason, the Christmas Island Detention Centre has generally been used in recent years for a comparatively small number of long-term detainees, particularly those who have had their visas cancelled under the s501 character provisions. With the number of such detainees in decline, it makes sense to close Christmas Island given it is such a high-cost operation.

It is not, as Markson suggests, being emptied out to prepare for a surge of boat arrivals. That is purely in Markson’s imagination (and that of whichever “experts” she has been talking to). Paterson should have explained that to her but chose not to. He and Markson would prefer to keep the boat fearmongering going irrespective of the facts.

It is true that the Nauru processing centre is also now close to empty and will be kept available if there is a boat arrival. That is at a substantial cost but not for any great policy reason while the turnback policy is in place. It is being kept available because of fear of the hysteria the Coalition and the Murdoch press would generate if there was a boat arrival (just one would be enough) and Nauru was not available to house the asylum seekers.

The most remarkable thing about the Markson/Paterson interview is the complete avoidance of any mention of the labour trafficking scam abusing the asylum system that started in 2015 under then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. It’s as if almost 100,000 asylum applicants arriving initially on tourist visas and then unsuccessfully applying for asylum is not a border protection or visa integrity issue but just the thought of a possible boat arrival with most likely genuine refugees should send us into a panic.

Once enough time has passed since the Coalition was in power, however, Paterson and the Murdoch press will turn up the heat on the Albanese Government to fix the asylum seeker backlog that started under Dutton and that he totally ignored. This is a problem for which the Coalition has proposed zero solutions other than the amnesty suggested by Nationals Leader David Littleproud (and swiftly rejected by former Attorney-General Michaelia Cash).

Dr Abul Rizvi is an Independent Australia columnist and a former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration. You can follow Abul on Twitter @RizviAbul.

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