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The obscurity of consensus: Refugees in the Australian Election

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Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison at the final Leaders' Debate, moderated by Sabra Lane (Screenshot via YouTube)

In the recent debates, the issue of refugees was raised, specifically what would happen to the people still detained on Manus and Nauru, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

ELECTIONEERING IN AUSTRALIA has had its good stretches of nastiness since the 1990s, when the issue of boat arrivals started becoming political gold for parties to exploit. From 2001, it became standard fare for refugees and asylum seekers to be demonised for sneakily bypassing, jumping or careering over a fictional queue. There was a fictional number to take, and wait. To risk your life coming across the seas was not something to tap sympathy or draw decent consideration; it was, rather, a firmer basis for torment, shame and ridicule.

Sabra Lane, moderating the last of three debates between opposition leader Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, tried to bring up the issue from the obscurity of consensus: What would happen to those currently held in detention on Manus Island and Nauru

The response from Morrison has not altered for some time, a weasel effort suggesting an inner humanitarian keen to be constructive rather than punishing. He praised his own efforts at bringing children out of such detention while giving a mammoth tick of approval to the arrangements made by the previous Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, with President Barack Obama about moving Australia’s own refugees to the United States (“Dumb deal”, President Donald Trump claimed with surprising accuracy). 

But the core point, unflappable and unchangeable, was the policy of never resettling those who arrived illegally by boat on Australian territory. Hard as the policy might be, to soften it would herald to the world that Australia was open and encourage “poor souls” to brave the journey. 

When Lane attempted to rein in Morrison from his standard excursus on the issue of a tough refugee policy, he gave an indelicate fudge — those in detention could be guaranteed they would not be sent back to places where they would come into harm’s way. (Hardly reassuring, given that the matter is an obligation in international humanitarian law.)

Shorten, showing how the consensus on refugees has ceased to be a mere toxin of Australian politics but its DNA, “agreed” on the issue of discouraging boat arrivals and discouraging their exploitation.

For those remaining on the two territories, every effort would be made to resettle them.

“I do not accept that the corollary that strong borders is indefinite detention.”

But in that time honoured tradition of irresponsible Australian deflection, other countries, including New Zealand, would continue being options for resettlement.

Ever keen to hug the hard line, Shorten has shown for some years he is ready to continue the Turnbull-Morrison policy by similar means. It took some time for the Labor opposition to be convinced by the arguments of independent MPs earlier this year to move those in desperate medical need off Manus and Nauru. For one, there was concern that the final say on whether individuals should be flown to the Australian mainland should be left to the relevant minister, rather than doctors. 

As Immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann explained in February:

“Labor has always had two clear objectives: making sure sick people can get medical care and making sure the minister has the final discretion over medical transfers.”

With all the fluttering of the Medevac Bill taking place in February, Shorten was keen to give the impression that the bleeding hearts with their soppy notions had not seized the ALP. The issue of Christmas Island reared its head, an option that could be used to give the impression of being hard and humane at the same time. “We’ve got to maintain strong borders but we have got to ensure treatment of people who are indirectly or directly within our care.” It would do, for instance, to send sick refugees to Christmas Island, a facility that the Morrison Government re-opened, only to close again within a matter of weeks to the tune of $185 million. “If the medical treatment is required and it’s delivered on Christmas Island and it makes people well, well that’s fine.” 

It was a position Shorten seemed to retreat from later that month (“The reality is Christmas Island doesn’t have very much in the way of medical care”), but the case for continuing cruel and erratic treatment had been made.

The distinct absence of electoral chatter over Nauru and Manus has not eluded the sharp Behrouz Boochani, who continues to be the tormented witness and voice for the permanently detained.

‘The politicians don’t like to talk about Manus and Nauru these days. In fact it can be a positive thing for us if they are quiet. We are so tired of being political pawns in elections. The important thing is that they cannot ignore this human tragedy.’ 

But ignore they have and will continue to do so till the next well of prejudice is drawn upon. The world of the United Nations Refugee Convention has not so much been a spectre at these proceedings than a needless irrelevance in the jostling for power.

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

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