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A new standard for asylum seeker policy



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.

Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison in 2013 (Graham Denholm/Getty Images)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 'that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met'. So what had changed?

Up until the 2015 ALP national conference, Abbott and his Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison taunted Labor for its failure to embrace turnbacks. For example, on 28 May 2014, Morrison told Parliament: 'We need to stay the course on border protection and those opposite would change it all because they oppose the successful border protection policies of this government. They will turn back on turnbacks, you can be sure of that. This government will not be turning on turnbacks, you can be assured.'


"Listening to Messrs Morrison, Dutton and Pyne this past week, one could be forgiven for thinking it was no longer possible to stop the boats while treating everyone decently and humanely as Mr Abbott would say."


Three months later, he was still at it: 'On turnbacks, we implemented the turnback policy which they said could never work and could never be done. When they see the results of that policy staring them in the face, they cannot support it now. The people of Australia know that, if they cannot support turnbacks now after the results they have seen, they will never support them, and they can never be trusted to put them in place.' At that time, there was no publicly available evidence that the turnbacks were lawful and safe. We were being asked to trust a non-transparent government.

With the clock ticking and with proven refugees starting to languish on Nauru and Manus Islands for two years without any prospect of resettlement, Abbott insisted: 'We will do whatever is necessary within the law and in accordance with our values as a decent and humane society to stop the boats and to ensure that they stay stopped. That is what we will do.'

This was Abbott's constant refrain — tough, decent and humane! The government would be tough on border protection, stopping the boats, refusing permanent resettlement in Australia, but always treating people 'humanely and decently' while they waited for resettlement elsewhere or until they decided to return home should they be proved not to be refugees. Meanwhile he continued to taunt Labor about turnbacks, in Parliament and on the airwaves: 'They always laugh when they are embarrassed. They do not know where they stand on turnbacks.'

We, the public, were still none the wiser as to whether Angus Houston's preconditions for turnbacks had been fulfilled. The pressure on the ALP resulted in a change of policy at the 2015 ALP National Conference. Bill Shorten won the day gaining an endorsement for 'safe' turnbacks. His opponents included Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek and Penny Wong. But Shorten was able to build a united front telling the media, 'We've had our debates in public, the Labor Party really argued this issue through, and I'm pleased to say that they backed my call.'

Since then, Labor has been able to put itself forward with a bipartisan commitment to stopping the boats safely. For example, Shayne Neumann, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, told Parliament on 9 November 2016: 'The boats have stopped, and the bipartisan policy that combines offshore processing and boat turnbacks, when safe to do so, works.'

For more than two years, Labor has been adamant that there is not a sliver of light between them and the government on turnbacks and stopping the boats. Last Wednesday morning, Tony Burke, the Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast, 'There remains a bipartisan turnback policy that I would be surprised, deeply surprised, if the government decided to not implement it ... The real shift was when a way was found to be able to conduct turnbacks again. Once that happened, it was bipartisan to support that and that means that if someone puts their lives at risk on the high seas, they are turned back and sent back to Jakarta.'

So that brings us back to Abbott's constant refrain that with the boats stopped, our government will treat everyone firmly, but decently and humanely. It's no surprise that after more than five years living precariously and on hold, refugees and asylum seekers who are still Australia's responsibility develop physical and psychiatric conditions that need to be treated here. Just as we have depoliticised safe turnbacks, we must now depoliticise appropriate medical treatment by competent decision makers. Listening to Messrs Morrison, Dutton and Pyne this past week, one could be forgiven for thinking it was no longer possible to stop the boats while treating everyone decently and humanely as Mr Abbott would say. To form government in Australia today, you need to be able to stop the boats safely, lawfully, and effectively, while treating everyone, especially the sick, humanely and decently. If you can't do that, you don't deserve to be in government.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of the Catholic Social Services Australia.

Main image: Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison in 2013 (Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Medivac, asylum seekers, Nauru, Manus Island



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Existing comments

I am with Frank on this. What changed? Read my book Reluctant Rescuers to understand what changed. Labor’s purist legalistic policies led to more deaths at sea than died under Howard . The border protection agencies were under undeclared political pressure to deter by late rescue which inevitably caused deaths. Abbott recruited Jim Molan and others who gave right practical advice that boats could be safely turned back, while still up close to Indonesia.Labor in govt under pressure from refugee advocates had not wanted to hear that advice . It is not a mistake Labor will make again. Thanks,Frank, for your and your colleagues morality and realism . You have got the balance right since 2016.

Tony Kevin | 18 February 2019  

"To form government in Australia today, you need to be able to stop the boats safely, lawfully, and effectively, while treating everyone, especially the sick, humanely and decently. If you can't do that, you don't deserve to be in government." Very true Frank! But I don't think it is humane to keep people in off-shore detention for over 5 years. Therefore I don't think either the Coalition or Labor should be in government. Twelve people have already died after being detained off-shore. How many more have to die before Australia has a humane government? Our major party politicians have been playing politics with the lives of desperate people seeking asylum. How many of our politicians would like to be detained on Nauru or PNG indefinitely? I'm sure they've all heard of the Golden Rule but it's about time they practised it, and voters kept them all to account!

Grant Allen | 18 February 2019  

We must stop using the rhetoric of the Abbott era. We must stop our cruelty to refugees, We must stop bombing other nations in concert with US . We must stop defying UN Convention on refugees.

Lyn Bender | 18 February 2019  

Angus is not an expert on refugee law and turning away people is a crime against humanity, that is all that needs to be said, why do all you old white men advocate such atrocities. Give it a rest, people are allowed to go to sea and seek asylum, if we take that away we are aiding and abetting genocide. You should be ashamed for still peddling and I am disgusted that a man who promised to uphold the rule of law would do so

Marilyn | 19 February 2019  

Fr Brennan condemns Australian politicians for ‘punishing refugees’. He declares ‘It has to stop!’ As a priest of substantial reputation, he is no doubt invoking the dictum ‘God’s love is unconditional’, believes in welcoming the stranger as one would welcome Jesus himself. Bravo! But are we to believe that the refugees themselves have no responsibility for their own predicament? They chose the high-risk people smuggler route to avoid our normal refugee processing. Even so, Fr Brennan tells we must be like Abbott “treat everyone, especially the sick, humanely and decently.” OK, how does free accommodation, three free meals each day, free medical care, free education, free internet and mobile phone sound? Despite this largesse, Brennan still sees ‘punishment’ occurring. Come off it. Australian taxpayers will pay for the air fare of each asylum seeker on Nauru and Manus to travel to any one of 197 countries in the world – except Australia. The decision to stop their suffering is in the refugee’s own hands. They choose instead to tough it out, hoping the Australian Government will weaken, all the while crying foul with Fr Brennan's one-sided support. Unfair.

Barry Fox | 19 February 2019  

Am currently using some of your comments, Frank, in occasional letters to politicians. It's quite easy to send comments to Ministers and I figure sending them, if perhaps futile, is better than simply seething at my desk. Thanks for the clear articulation of the issues!

Catherine Greenley | 20 February 2019  

Thank you Marilyn, spot as as always.

Janet | 20 February 2019  

A rational comment from Barry Fox who is able to sit on the fence and look at what is happening on both sides rather than becoming mesmerised by the events on only one side.

john frawley | 20 February 2019  

I have been a long time admirer of Frank Brennan. He has often sought to apply the law and to appeal to moral principles. However on this occasion he fails to convince me of the merit of his argument. Let’s return to law and to first principles: why are Australian politicians to be exempt from upholding the UN Conventions on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory? Why are they also exempt from upholding the human rights of all. That they have kept as hostages, yes let’s not mince words, asylum seekers and proven refugees on Manus and Nauru, some for a period of five years, is on the public record. Why? To deter would be boat people from taking to the high seas with the possibility of more deaths at sea is the reason given. So Frank, does the end justify the means? Not in my understanding of Christian morality. Such teleological reasoning also breaks down under scrutiny of the much vaunted ability of Australian Border Force to turn back the boats. I’m with Marilyn on this one Frank. “It’s time” was a clarion call to the electorate that saw Gough Whitlam elected as PM. It is indeed time, high time that Australia has a political leader who can argue from human principles and lead the nation to a strong moral stance on this matter. Like a prophet of old I foresee no lasting good can come from anything less.

Ern Azzopardi | 20 February 2019  

A good article Frank. There are over 8000 overstayed Chinese visa holders who have melted into the local landscape. Countless more who slipped into Melbourne and Sydney in Container ships. Estimates are over 60,000 in Australia. Chinese now control more land here than even the UK. Their foreign ownership has jumped 100% in the past 12 months. They have military grade runways near Karatha . Right on the Coast. They control ports at Newcastle and Darwin. They control mines and infrastructure Australiawide. Whilst Abbot and Dutton tell us that Nauru is a holiday camp even the US have agreed to take 750 refugees because of the perception that Australia has an abysmal human rights record in that benighted place. Because of the Chinese handing out billion dollar loans in PNG SCOMO has suddenly decided with the USA to build a joint military base there. The latest hack on the parliamentary database has been marked down to the Chinese as well. Why cant we see the wood for the trees?

Francis Armstrong | 20 February 2019  

Sorry Frank you are too biased on this subject and should declare your interest. Australia does more than 99% of other countries. Many of those ''refugees''are facing serious court charges but are getting medical assistance. No one else wants them Frank so what does that suggest to you? And, of course, today we find labor leadership in disagreement. Shorten is obviously embarrassed and Plibersyk is obviously unhappy because both miss read the situation. Tony Abbott's position has not been changed. These people are being treated well and a lot better than they would be anywhere else. Activists like you have got nothing else to talk about. What about Labors mistreatment of women regarding the franking credits issue. Have you read the fine print? No, of course not. Sorry Frank, i cannot agree with you on this.

PHILLIP ROWAN | 20 February 2019  

Hey Barry, Dutton gloated yesterday that he has wasted $15.5 billion to lock up 3000 refugees on Nauru and Manus, and you whinge about health care flights. The untendered deal with a Brisbane mate of the LNP is charging us $1.37 million per person per year, and 99.2% of those assessed are refugees. The cost for another untendered mate of the LNP for Manus's illegal prison is cheap in comparison at a mere $582,000 per person for no service, and that prison is still illegal. What if we had never done this and allowed for the law to act and accept that it's legal to come by sea, and just stop whinging.

Marilyn | 20 February 2019  

i also agree with fr frank on this issue nothing has changed and probably never will

maryellen flynn | 20 February 2019  

Ern and Marilyn, Frank is simply giving non-Liberal politicians room to manoeuvre towards more just treatment of detainees without having to risk losing an election on 'stopping the boats' weakness. The purity of Christian ethics is not so relevant to our politicians in this particular election ploy (the oft played 'tough on border' card that gets so many votes these days). Thanks to Frank's clarification, Labour, the Greens and others can participate in the debate without having to appear 'soft on border protection '. Still, some of us longs for the day when we can challenge the whole policy of turnbacks, based on Christian and secular humanitarian ethics, without it being an election loser'!

ANTONY G REILLY | 20 February 2019  

Granted, as Anthony Reilly observes, that Frank Brennan's genius is employed here to make it easier for Shorten & Co not to be decimated at the polls, in 2012 Angus Houston did report 'that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met'. Of crucial importance here is that no one in Labor, except for Graham Richardson, could see that Labor would lose hands down in refusing to explore the turn-back policy option. I would imagine that some ministers would have asked Houston this question, at least unofficially, and who is to say what a careful man like him intended and to what extent he might have emphasised his use of the euphemism 'legally' (unless he is now prepared to clarify his meaning and would be morally impelled to intervene in the election debate)? This would also open up a minefield of accusation and counter-accusation and imperil Houston's reputation for objectivity. Whatever the case, Frank Brennan has done Labor a great service in helping them move on. I hope they take his advice because, whatever its evident drawbacks, the democratic temper is always paramount and must be respected.

Michael Furtado | 21 February 2019  

"...our government will treat everyone firmly, but decently and humanely." provided they arrive by plane and not by boat.

Michael D. Breen | 21 February 2019  

No Michael, human rights law and human rights do not exist at the whim of political parties, they exist because humans are humans, article 30 of the declaration of human rights states clearly that no state can strip any person of those rights.

Marilyn | 22 February 2019  

Another great article from father Frank - an appeal to reason and humanity. I think it is summed up in the final sentence. Yes, stop the boats and treat asylum seekers humanely. After all, they have come from some of the world's hell holes. However, how we go about stopping the boats is very important. It is not by towing them away or forcing them away (a la Tampa). Our leaders need to cease supporting US wars and US client regimes that repress their peoples. These are the major factors why there are refugees. And blaming the victims for the dilemma is totally inappropriate and inhumane. If we had been what many of these people have been through, we too would be escaping to another country which would be safer for ourselves and our families. One aspect of the issue that I find hypocritical is that many of our LNP and ALP leaders who have treated asylum seekers like political scape goats claim they are Christians. I note that the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:34 states: "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt......" In addition, the teaching in the New Testament is very clear on the issue of treating all - including enemies - with care and compassion. I would suggest that Frank understands this far more than Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison and their disciples do.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 22 February 2019  

If only that were true, Michael Breen! Recent research published in The Conversation website shows that many evidently genuine asylum seekers arriving at Australia's airports are turned away by Customs & Excise officials without any chance of legal representation and being interviewed by Immigration Officers. These include some examples of Saudi Arabian women claiming to be in fear of their lives and sent back on the next plane to face the severe consequences, some of which include public flagellation and even beheading, of 'disrespecting' their menfolk.

Michael Furtado | 23 February 2019  

Frank if the election was for one issue only you might want to push for a Labor government, but there are any issues and a strong economy is essential to carry out policies. Labor's record is not good. Now policies taking away savings from retirees needs to be considered and the Shorten / Bowen attack does not impress.

BERNARD TRESTON | 23 February 2019  

I agree with Francis Armstrong: we cannot see the wood for the trees. The silent invasion of Australia by China and others, most of it legal and above board, goes unmentioned. Thousands have arrived by plane and slipped quietly into Australia; an immigration scandal which is out of control. Refugees arriving by boat will continue if not due to wars, then climate change in the near Pacific. It suits politicians to fuel fear over boat arrivals because it takes the focus off the real facts of where this country is really going and their unwillingness to do anything about it. If one was in the business of choosing a suitable immigrant, which would be better? One with everything to gain and nothing to lose or one who can pick the eyes out of the Australian social economy and skive off back to the home country when things go bad?

Anthea Dacy | 24 February 2019  

Since Frank's reputation for fairness and good judgment is formidable and therefore likely to attract wide readership, it is worth focussing on a hidden corner of the debate, which includes the advice given by security chiefs to both the PM and Opposition Leader - and used to sensational political effect by the PM recently in parliament - on post-Medivac border protection. In her remarkable autobiography, 'Open Secret' (2002), Dame Stella Rimington, the former Head of MI5, spends no less than 18 final pages in defence of her book, as it came under assault from the UK political establishment. Sadly, there is not yet a tradition of Australian public servants doing this, let alone casting light on the manipulation and skulduggery of governments in power. Rimington says: "Many people.. assumed that my main contribution.. would be in providing information about security risks and how to manage them" (p.272), and also: "the public service cannot be casual or slaphappy about establishing precedents - you are dealing with people's rights & people's expectation" (p.273). From memory, it is only Peter Varghese in his role as DFAT D-G who mounted a spirited defence of his position when resigning in 2016. Where are the others?

Michael Furtado | 24 February 2019  

Hi Frank. I am perplexed by your article. It is unambiguously the case that horrific massacres of civilians have occurred in Myanmar and also the Sri Lankan civil war, on our doorstep. War crimes committed in both cases. So stopping boats will save drownings, and it will also cut off escape routes for people running for their lives. I thought you may have mentioned that ? The majority of Australians have not been made aware of the falsity of the refugee "queue" which applies to resettlement, not people fleeing genocidal acts. So what is the point of stopping boats if we don't also look at how we can give people a genuine path to urgent safety? This will mean a lot of very hard work with regional countries: people should be able to seek safety, but not determine where they get settled.

Johan Mostert | 24 February 2019  

Johan Mostert. I agree completely with what you say regarding genuine refugees. In relation to Sri Lanka, however, I also recall that a couple of years ago some 800-odd Sri Lankan boat arrivals sent to offshore detention for processing voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka. I doubt that they were fleeing persecution or fearing for their lives when return to Sri Lanka was a better option than remaining in detention. Clearly, it seems, not all asylum seekers are genuine refugees.

john frawley | 25 February 2019  

Its not as black and white as you deduce, John Frawley. The Rajapaksa government was leant upon heavily by Australia to take those refugees in return for gaining credibility for its questionable policies. Also, why should refugees languish in perpetual limbo when there may be better options for them? The Australian Jesuits and Dominicans include a few ethnic Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, some of whom are based in Melbourne. Were you to contact them you would gain a first-hand account of the discrimination and atrocities facing even highly educated middle-class Tamils when the constitution was changed to suppress partisan parliamentary politics and power handed over to a partisan president in whom even the best educated and professional Tamils could have no confidence. Granted that conflict has subsided since the assassination of the head of the Tamil Tigers, and many Sri Lankans on both sides are tired of it, Tamil Sri Lankans are still subjected to many restrictions on their civil liberties. My point here is that so great was the pressure on Tamil refugees to leave that not all could wait in a queue to be processed by Australia's immigration officers, in respect of which many fled by boat.

Michael Furtado | 25 February 2019  

And there is the simple fact that people have to be outside their own countries to seek asylum,

Marilyn | 27 February 2019  

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