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Labor excises its moral compass


Moral CompassIn politics, hypocrisy is a natural condition, a symptom of being economic with the vérité, to use that famed expression of Tory MP Alan Clarke. On Tuesday, it became evident that refugee policy is the last thing that should be made by the Australian government, be it this scrambling outfit, or any successor regime.

Officials, obsessed by sovereignty, slandering an Opposition that tried to do the very same thing when it was in government in 2006, decided to excise the Australian mainland for purposes of processing refugee claims. All arrivals on the mainland by boat will be sent to either Nauru or Manus Island for processing. Currently, arrivals are processed on the mainland and receive bridging visas and an assortment of working rights.

There has been a surge of numbers coming to Australia since the re-introduction of the Pacific Solution (5700 arrivals since 13 August), suggesting that offshore processing is hardly a disincentive. As one of the underlying rationales for the Pacific network is to deter people smuggling and their paid-up human cargo, Canberra is rapidly running out of ideas. Desperation has become the motivator of government policy.

It was already clear in the 1990s that Australian governments were seeking a solution to discourage the arrival of individuals to the mainland by sea. One of their precedents was the 1981 interdiction of Haitian asylum seekers heading to the United States under the Haitian Migration Interdiction Program.

The program was significant for spawning a processing system involving facilities in Guantanamo Bay, and ad hoc arrangements with Caribbean and South American countries. US President Ronald Reagan had described the arrivals as 'a serious national problem detrimental to the interests of the United States'.

Europe and Australia followed suit. The EU has undertaken measures to restrict the access of migrants and refugees, using a 'de-territorialised' regime of technology, verification and surveillance.

As noted by a student of ex-territorial processing in Europe (Carl Levy, in the Refugee Survey Quarterly in 2010), 'From 2005 and 2010, the advancement of exterritorial zones became bi- or multilateral projects of various constellations of member states and partners in the European neighbourhood or among South Saharan African countries.' Keeping people in distant processing camps has become a global philosophy.

By no means is Australia singular in its treatment of refugees in that respect. But it is distinct in its classification of zones of entry and arrival, a 'leader' in that practice of qualified sovereignty.

The Gillard Government has gone further than Howard. A Howard Government measure that would have excised the entire mainland from the processing zone was defeated by a revolt by his own backbench assisted by the Labor Opposition. (Current Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was himself a vocal opponent of the measure.)

To her credit, the Coalition's Judi Moylan has expressed her desire, along with colleague Russell Broadbent, to have a repeat performance this time and cross the floor.

Labor on the other hand has effectively excised its own moral compass. Only Melissa Parke voiced concern about Australia's non-compliance with international law when this measure was put to caucus for approval.

There is that nagging issue of the Refugee Convention, which remains the seagull around the Ancient Mariner's neck. Article 31 makes it clear that principles of 'non-penalisation, detention and protection' must be observed. Even if the arrivals enter a country 'without authorisation', the principles are to be observed as long as they can show 'good cause for their illegal entry or presence'.

Nor does it matter how they arrive, a fact that has escaped the lawmakers of the commonwealth parliament.

The regime of excising offshore islands is itself punitive, suggesting that Canberra is intent on punishing people for the way they arrive, irrespective of what their status actually is. The scope has now been broadened. If this does not violate the Convention, it would be hard to see what could. 'Excision', stated human rights lawyer Rachel Ball, 'is an affront to justice and the rule of law.'

The modern climate of treating refugees is such that no one wants them. Certainly no one in Canberra, if they can help it. North Koreans in Australia — yes, North Koreans — are being deported to South Korea, because, of course, all Koreans are alike, and they don't really need to be here in any case.

The measure of excising the mainland for the purposes of immigration is extraordinary for the way it treats sovereignty. Paradoxically, states react with heavy-handed measures because they feel it their prerogative as free entities to do so. Ironically, such measures, for the sake of defeating the ambit of the Convention, actually qualify sovereignty.

Now that Gillard has achieved something Howard dreamt of doing in 2006, Labor has shown it can play the game of hypocrisy as well as any.

Binoy Kampmark headshotBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, excision, Refugee Convention, asylum seekers, Pacific Solution, Malaysia solution



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Existing comments

How can Australia excise herself? Does that mean we are no longer on the map? I seem to remember Queen Victoria refused to recognise Bolivia with the result that a blank space appeared on maps in place Bolivia. If we are a blank space how can we claim to have a voice in world affairs at the UN and other international organisations?

Joanna Elliott | 01 November 2012  

All these outlandish manoeuvres are abrogations of our international obligations, are "dog-Whistling" strategies to attract the redneck bogan and racist votes - and amount to a vile staged political ballet-opera and have become a social cancer on the polity of our nation.

Carlo Canteri | 01 November 2012  

I have a problem with the title of this article. Labor' policy on refugees now shows that it does not have a moral compass at all.

The orginal excising of Australia's islands was a cynical, legalistic ploy by John Howard to avoid facing up to our responsibilities towards refugees who come here - but at least still recognising that we have responsibilites to those who arrive here. Labor's new policy abandons all pretence that they realise that we have responsibilites to be compassionate to refugees, treating them all now as criminals and sentencing them to years of harsh conditions, simply for wanting a peaceful life and the land of their choosing - a right we enjoy.

David Crowley | 01 November 2012  

I seriously wonder also about the advice provided by the Department of Immigration. Both the Howard and the Gillard governments have changed previous policies so much that I think there must be a culture of xenophobia in that department, or at least some philosophy and practice feeding the hierarchy of worthiness theory. Are there people there who are pushing political barrows we are unaware of? Increasingly I can't imagine how we would go back to policies based on humanitarianism and away from the current culture of punishment and reward for refugees. This federal department needs more examination.

Gabrielle | 01 November 2012  

Quite so, Gillard does not try to 'save' anyone from drowning but to cater to the bigots in the electorate and to curry favour with voters.

But, of course, she is in good company with Abbott here.

Have we heard the voice of 'all' Christians on this yet, the Australian Christian Lobby, or Pell or someone from what's left of the Anglicans?

No, too difficult for them all.

janice wallace | 01 November 2012  

Bowen is now relying on the long rejected absurdist position that we only have an obligation not to return people. Actually we have 34 obligations and rights that are extended to asylum seekers.

Our media are just as bad - they refuse to accept that the resettlement program is not a legal program, it is merely a lazy way to deny entry to people.

Marilyn | 01 November 2012  

Is it time now, to rise up in justified anger, with a massive public demonstration, against these crimes against humanity, our Govt. is perpetrating? Is it time to converge outside parliament House, demonstrating (in our thousands) our repugnance at this unjust policy, towards refugees. Letters to the papers, are printed sparingly. Action may now be needed . Have we the courage of our convictions?

berrnie introna | 01 November 2012  

Shame, shame, shame. Not content with punishing those seeking to escape persecution, now Ms Gillard and David Bowen have decided to excise Australia, in order to defeat the agreement signed with the united Nations on caring for refugees. They proclaim us to be deviously callous people. Why must this government seek to outstrip the Howard Government in punishing the desperate?

Michelle | 01 November 2012  

I think this statement of yours is logically fallacious, Binoy: "On Tuesday, it became evident that refugee policy is the last thing that should be made by the Australian government, be it this scrambling outfit, or any successor regime."

Just because the current government and its predecessor were inept in certain areas, it does not follow that their successors, at some point in time, may not be able to do the job.

At the moment we Australians seem to be suffering from serious cynicism about our political class at all levels of government. Perhaps we need to make this clear to them? It may take some doing but I think they need to be reminded that politics is about real governance not smoke and mirrors.

Edward F | 02 November 2012  

Now that both major parties (Labor recycles law to deter boat people”,Courier Mail 31/10) are like one on deterring, nay obstructing and stopping, asylum seekers arriving by boat across our borders , despite their legal right to seek protection here, we can drop all pretence that we care about the danger of them drowning. We don’t care whether they die in their war zones or countries of first refuge. We don’t care if they go mad with grief and idleness on Nauru.

Human rights principles overboard, Australia will become known for its bigoted small mindedness and toxic political agenda which is knowingly prepared to sacrifice a few thousand refugees ( most do prove they are) while at the same time selecting over 200 000 immigrants this year, tolerating 60 000 illegal overstayers, hosting nearly half a million foreign students and seeking to lure skilled workers from “over there” to fill job vacancies. My despair is total.

Frederika Steen | 02 November 2012  

Gillard has never had a moral compass where refugees are concerned. She almost drove several to their deaths with her deliberate callous reaction to them.

1. an Iraqi doctor forced to be a refugee because of the actions of Australian Richard Butler was told by Gillard she would not intervene to help get his Sabean family out of central Baghdad just as we were about to start bombing the place.
2. she ignored the plea of an Afghan man in Curtin just to talk to him and he jumped out of a tree and ended up with brain damage.
3. she told an Iranian refugee that being stoned to death for being homosexual did not make him a refugee and he could go home.

That is the character of this openly racist ignorant woman.

Marilyn | 02 November 2012  

It seems to me that the Australian Greens are the only political party here that both respects the Refugee Convention and the lives of refugees fleeing to our shores. I like Frank Brennan's idea of setting up a staging-post in Indonesia, where refugees are cared for, forming an official 'queue' and sending anyone who breaks the queue back to join the end of it. If only our political leaders would do something practical and compassionate like this, we could again hold our heads up high as Australians, the people with a one-time reputation for having a good sense of 'A fair go!'.

George Allen | 18 November 2012  

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