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Prime Minister Turnbull and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Dutton (screen shot via YouTube).

“There is nothing more Australian than ensuring people are subject to the rule of law and have their legal rights protected.”

~ Fiona McLeod, Law Council of Australia

THE LATEST developments in Australia's concentration camp redux approach to refugee policy have brought another colouring of extremism from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. In the drama, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton has distinguished himself by claiming that anyone keen to advise asylum seekers and refugees is pushing the envelope of “un-Australianness”.

To Alan Jones on radio station 2GB, a tenured shock-jock of the airways always happy to find the dark amidst the good, Dutton was punchy and unrelenting:  

“These lawyers have been playing the game with these people who are willing participants and we’re a generous nation, but we’re not going to be taken for a ride.”

Dutton has given every reason to make work for those in the business of defending refugees and asylum seekers, though he bafflingly seems to be looking at a different set of laws. Refugee advocates tend to rely on the criteria of risk and harm, more than that anaemic document known as the Australian Constitution. The minister was none the wiser.

On Sunday, the Turnbull Government decided to pull the somewhat tattered rug from under 100 Australian-based asylum seekers by ending income-support – a modest $200 a fortnight – a decision to take immediate effect on Monday. 

This move of monetary strangulation and de facto starvation was accompanied by a firm and brutal direction: Move out of government sponsored accommodation and find a home in three weeks, or else. These unfortunates are to be designated as having a “final departure bridging E visa”.

Asylum seekers transferred from Canberra’s own Pacific gulag system to the Australian mainland for medical reasons are being given a true ear-bashing by the Immigration Minister. 

“The medical assistance has been provided and there is no more need for them to remain in Australia and yet through these legal moves, they’ve found themselves a way [to remain].”

Dutton’s police-state attacks on the legal profession combine a set of roughly sketched concepts mined from the quarry of demagogy. As with any such mine, none of the items has any accuracy, let alone true bearing on the situation. 

There is the characteristic alibi of political correctness — because to defend asylum seekers should obviously be politically correct:

“It goes back to your earlier remarks, Alan, about all the political correctness out there … and it extends to some of our major law firms, where part of their social justice agenda is for pro bono work to be provided … and it costs the taxpayer tens of millions each year.”

In fact, defending those seeking asylum in Australia is distinctly incorrect in any political sense. The central political thesis for Australia’s major parties is that those seeking asylum, helped along by the people smuggler, tend to operate in the twilight zone of criminality and unscrupulousness.

The means they employ, goes this line of problematic reasoning, is nothing short of criminal; it follows that they are to be detained, relocated and resettled. Those who dare take to the boat and head to Australia, at risk of losing their lives, are to be singled out for the best injustice Australia can offer.

Mercifully enough, there are some in the legal profession who feel that holding a government accountable in the field of refugee law is far from novel.

Law Council of Australia President Fiona McLeod reminds Dutton:

“It is true that the legal rights of individuals can be an inconvenience to government, so attacking the legal professionals who work pro bono to defend those rights is truly extraordinary.”

One such inconveniencing individual is Daniel Webb of the Human Rights Law Centre, who charts the flesh and blood profile of his clients:

“Women who were sexually assaulted on Nauru. Men who were violently attacked on Manus. Children who were so traumatised by offshore detention that they needed urgent psychiatric care in Australia.”

Webb’s all too accurate point is accusing of Dutton, who he claims is as suffering from bad faith:

“The minister evacuated these people because he knew full well they’d suffered serious harm.”

Nor did the Immigration Department contest claims in court that some of the claimants “would face further abuse, danger and harm if returned”.

Concerned groups – no doubt of the politically correct variety castigated by Dutton – have offered to assist the Melbourne-based refugees, totalling 200. Housing and feeding them will cost in the order of $1 million over six months — a burden that will be borne by the cash-strapped Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

A government writhing in mortal desperation is a gruesome sight and Dutton’s conduct is likely to become more erratic. For one, doubt about the Australian-U.S. refugee deal, deeply detested by President Donald Trump, is starting to take hold. Consider, for instance, the 2007 agreement made between the Howard Government and the Bush Administration.

That particular episode of exemplary daftness was characterised by an Australian agreement to take Haitian and Cuban refugees from Guantanamo Bay (an immigration facility, rather than the infamous holding centre for terrorist suspects) on the proviso the U.S. reciprocate by accepting a portion of Australia’s unwanted refugees. 

Over time, this supposedly ingenious attempt on the part of Canberra to deter arrivals using the U.S. as a sanitising conduit sniffled into oblivion. With any luck, the Turnbull Government will again have to concede defeat and grudgingly admit those asylum seekers it derides with such militant, shock-wave dedication.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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