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A new standard for asylum seeker policy

  • 18 February 2019


We are all gearing up for the third election in a row when boat turnbacks and the punitive treatment of refugees and asylum seekers feature. It need not be so. It's time voters sent a message that it should not be so.

The overwhelming majority of our politicians and the overwhelming majority of voters are agreed that the boats from Indonesia carrying asylum seekers transiting Indonesia should be stopped, and the refugees and asylum seekers who have been languishing on Nauru and Manus Island should be treated decently and humanely. The disagreement is over whether after five and more years of aimless waiting and suspension, all those who are sick can be given appropriate medical attention either on site or in Australia.

A recent swathe of court cases demonstrates that when the decision whether to conduct a medical evacuation is left to Peter Dutton's public servants, the decision cannot always be classed as decent and humane. A narrow majority of our politicians thought it was time to insist that such medical decisions always be decent and humane. They remain insistent that the boats remain stopped, with turnbacks in place.

Last Wednesday night, Jacinta Collins, the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate, announced her retirement from parliament. In her valedictory speech, she made a telling observation: 'I regret that officials did not alert Labor when we were in government that boat interceptions or turnbacks could safely occur. Much of what followed might not have subsequently occurred.' This needs to be unpacked.

At the 2013 election, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were equally committed to stopping the boats. While Abbott placed great store on turnbacks, Rudd thought the same result could be achieved only by other means. He negotiated deals with PNG and Nauru and announced that no asylum seeker taken to those places would ever be permitted to settle in Australia. Prime Minister Rudd, presumably with comprehensive security and military briefings, thought that the conditions for legal turnbacks could not be fulfilled. Abbott, without the benefit of the regular briefings available only to government, was able to wing it and promise turnbacks.

On his election as prime minister, Abbott instituted Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) and within two months, turnbacks were a centerpiece of OSB. Many of us were troubled by the secrecy of the turnback arrangements because the previous year the expert panel chaired by the respected ex-head of the military Angus Houston had reported