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Morrison's law of intended consequences


Scott Morrison at media conferenceThe news from Manus Island is dreadful. We know that at least one asylum seeker has died as a result of injuries sustained in disturbances over the past three days. Many asylum seekers have been wounded, some seriously, in reported gunshot, club or knife wounds.

There is still much we do not know. We do not know if these deaths and injuries were sustained within the perimeter wire i.e. on Australian-administered camp territory, or outside the wire i.e., on PNG sovereign territory. We do not know if asylum seekers had voluntarily left the Australian-run compound, or demonstrated (or rioted) within it; we do not know if the compound was then invaded by angry or out-of-control PNG police or security forces, and if asylum seekers then fled the compound trying to escape attacks by armed men.

There is the official story so far, as told by Scott Morrison, and the unofficial counter-story as told by Ian Rintoul of the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition, based on many telephoned reports by detainees. They are very different stories.

There are two official enquiries announced so far: an Australian Immigration Department enquiry, and a PNG Government enquiry. Labor has called for an independent enquiry. Labor should therefore support Gillian Triggs (Director of the Australian Human Rights Commission) in her reasonable call for access to the site and to witnesses, to enable her to prepare a thorough independent enquiry. If the two governments have nothing to hide, they should promptly grant Triggs' request for access.

Whatever story or stories emerge as to how the violence and deaths happened, there is the underlying basic question; did the Australian Government violate its duty of care, by sending to a detention centre in a poorly-policed foreign country people who had arrived in Australian waters and made asylum claims there under the Refugee Conventions? Many decent Australians would contend that it did.

Whatever bad things have happened at Curtin, Woomera, Baxter, Maribynong and Villawood detention centres, these places were or are subject to Australian law and public accountability safeguards. The truth usually eventually comes out. Manus is not, or very imperfectly. Cover-up of atrocity is a lot easier in Manus than it would be in an Australian detention centre.

And this of course is what was intended. Manus is part of the asylum-seeker deterrent system. The fear of death at sea, and the fear of death by security force brutalisation at Manus, are intended to deter asylum-seeker voyages. To stop the boats.

And, awkwardly, this was Labor's view too, when it reopened Manus late in its final term of government. And this is why Labor is impotent now to do more than call for the facts of what happened. It cannot evade policy responsibility for Manus being in operation. 

Tanya Plibersek is reported to have said words to the effect that a few deaths or injuries in riots at Manus is better than hundreds of drowning at sea. Well yes, but wrong comparison. First, because Labor's record of asylum seeker deaths at sea in 2009–2013 is far greater than since the Coalition regained power, and more than double the death toll under Howard. Second, because asylum seeker deaths at sea haven't been inevitable, but are usually the result of negligent or dilatory Australian agency responses to known distress situations.

Labor's problem — and we see it again in its first responses to the awful news from Manus — is that it is neither principled enough nor brutal enough. It suffers from conflicting objectives: in government it wanted to deter, but to stay within the law and decency as far as possible. So it sent mixed policy messages to the Border Protection Command, ADF, and Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Like Henry II with his troublesome priest Thomas A'Becket, it wanted its officials to deal firmly with the mounting asylum seeker inflow, but not in ways that Australia could be held to account for violations of law or rescue failures. It sent conflicting signals to officials. It tried ineffectually to cover up rescue failures that should never have happened, if it had made clear its determination to apply correct rescue-at-sea protocols.

The Coalition's message is brutal and clear: we will stop the boats. To do this we will break international maritime and refugee laws, jeopardise Australia's relations with Indonesia, and stand at arm's length and watch as major avoidable violence and human rights abuses take place in PNG. Because all this bad stuff reinforces the deterrent message we are utterly determined to keep sending.

And so far, it is working.

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, PNG, Manus Island, asylum seekers, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

Gillian Triggs' call for an independent inquiry into the Manus Island violence headed by a retired judge or civil servant, as reported in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald, is the right way to go. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/inquiry-into-manus-island-violence-should-be-independent-says-human-rights-commission-20140219-32zna.html Sadly, the whole issue of asylum seekers has become a political minefield, with almost everyone involved claiming their point of view is the only correct one and denigrating anyone who dares to speak differently. Assumptions are often taken for facts. I doubt whether, in this current atmosphere, we are able, as a nation, to have a useful public discussion on the issue. Thank God for those rare moments of light as provided by Professor Triggs. Would there were more like her!

Name | 20 February 2014  

Tony Kevin wrote: “Second, because asylum seeker deaths at sea haven't been inevitable, but are usually the result of negligent or dilatory Australian agency responses to known distress situations.” I am sure he is going to give evidence if he want to destroy the good name of our defence force. If he has no evidence, then Tony Kevin should apologise to every single member of our defence force! Our soldiers and sailor risk their lives for the defence of our country and anybody slurring the name of these brave people is lower than a snakes belly.

Beat Odermatt | 20 February 2014  

Beat - Refer to Tony's book Reluctant Rescuers, or his numerous previous articles on Eureka Street on this topic. Tony - keep up the good, important work.

Charles Boy | 20 February 2014  

Trouble is while it is secret it is not a deterrent. And deterring refugees is illegal even under Australian law.

Marilyn | 20 February 2014  

In Oz older days when convicts misbehaved they were sentenced to prison at Norfolk Islandd. The worst prisoners were there. McNaughten was put in charge and used rewards and decent treatment to get good behaviour. He was removed, being too enlightened, because norfolk Island was no longer feared to be worse than death.

rose drake | 21 February 2014  

Some reports from Manus Island suggest that asylum seekers are regularly injured by rocks etc. thrown by local people, as well as by guards in the recent riots. It all shows the folly of sending them to Manus in the first place, however the Govt might crow about the success of the policy. The two inquiries being set up to investigate recent events are a waste of time - I could write the findings right now: that there is no fault with the Immigration Dept or the contracted guards.

Rodney Wetherell | 21 February 2014  

There are a few incidents that have made me ashamed to be an Australian, such as the attempted rip off of the Timorese oil fields. But "our" treatment of Asylum Seekers must rank with the worst in living memory

Robert Liddy | 21 February 2014  

There is an article by Malcolm Fraser in this morning's Fairfax Press, setting all this in the context of global refugee issues. Worth reading. Secondly, I just tried to open the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition page, and the account has been suspended. Has this been done by the coalition itself, or by the government? I am wondering because on their Facebook page the Coalition names the man who died on Manus (written as "was killed" in most reports, thus avoiding attribution to any human agent).

Janet | 21 February 2014  

Can someone tell me when white inhumanity to man will stop,and certain ministers call them selves Catholic Christians but their actions and the vitriol from many Australians is definately Not what Jesus would do.

Irena | 21 February 2014  

The headline is confusing, since the article states that the "law" referred to belongs to Gillard's Labor Party. Most people would believe that the deaths at sea are the result of the use of unseaworthy boats, overloaded for illicit profit taking from desperate human beings, or as a result of deliberate scuttling in some cases. To suggest that these deaths are the result of negligence on the part of Australian naval personal is shameful. Also interesting to see such an article as this when the writer states that, like everyone else, he knows nothing of what happened on Manus. Should learn to keep the powder dry, Mr Kevin, otherwise the shots you fire come to nothing. Better to report facts than to speculate according to the dictates of personal unsubstantiated (in this case) opinion.

john frawley | 21 February 2014  

The Federal Government's refusal to allow the Director of the Australian Human Rights Commission to visit Manus Island detention centre with free access to investigate the conditions under which detainees are held and free access to interview detainees without security guards present is sufficient proof that they have something to hide from both the Australian public and international scrutiny. We are so quick to criticise China, Russia and now Egypt for detention of people without due process, but we do it ourselves, even contracting out the detention to other countries to keep it further from scrutiny.

Ian Fraser | 21 February 2014  

I cannot immediately lay my hands on the ''unofficial'' report on what happened at Manus Island detention centre, referenced in my essay. I will check further and report back to ES readers.. Meanwhile, a series of three news programs on ABC TV 7.30 Report starting on 18 Feb will give a picture of the asylum-seekers' and independent witnesses' versions of events. http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2013/s3947496.htm

tony kevin | 21 February 2014  

I offer three further references: 1. An 8 minute video interview Virginia Trioli with RAC spokesman Ian Rintoul on ABC News Breakfast onTuesday 18 Feb. This detailed and searching interview was recorded before news broke of the death of one asylum-seeker, Reza Barati. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-02-18/refugee-advocate-ian-rintoul-speaks-with-abc-news-breakfast/5266236 2. Statement issued by Labor for Refugees 'Synthesised Account of Attacks at Manus Island ". https://www.facebook.com/labor4refugees/posts/598184263600984 3. And today, a news report by Paul Toohey in 'Australian' that dead man Reza Barati may have been murdered by guards stomping on his head. http://t.co/iJiRHgPChg This is probably enough to convince doubters that there is a serious human rights abuses case to be answered by the Australian Government.

tony kevin | 21 February 2014  

No amount of finger pointing is going to aid this situation one bit. To suggest that the navy or ADF has been negligent is all but treason. These men and women put their lives at risk as a result of many countries not doing enough to halt the cause of refugees having to flee their homeland. I, for one, am sick of my Christian beliefs being challenged because I do not believe that our borders should be open slather to anyone at all. I work with humanitarian refugees who waited years in detention camps in Uganda - Their stories would make you cringe. We need to have problems sorted in home countries - not enable people to risk their lives and then criticise Australia for protecting its sovereignty.

Jackie | 21 February 2014  

Beat, We have had at least one conversation before on some matter or other, I think an important one. Here we have another one and it concerns Australia's policy towards asylum seekers to this country, specifically those who contribute to the 'People Smugglers' "Business Model" as former PM Julia Gillard labelled it. You, I think would heartily agree with the Gillard description as you do endorse the Howard-Abbott-Morrison policy of turning back the boats or housing the would bees on idyllic tropical islands. Have you, Beat, ever contemplated the degrading and thoroughly dehumanising experiences of Italian, Spanish and other quaintly named 'Foreign' workers who cross by road, train and air and are subjected to very special treatment by the very efficient and selective Swiss border security and customs officials. Take a train trip in second class from Milan to Zurich sometime soon, Beat, and observe whose bags are opened at the Swiss border and whose sausage, cheese and grappa are taxed.

David Timbs | 21 February 2014  

For Tony Kevin to imply that "asylum seeker deaths at sea are usually the result of negligent or dilatory Australian agency responses to known distress situation". I know that over the years Eureka Street has published (rightly so, freedom of expression) many comments supporting the Greens, Left wing advocates, John Howard and Tony Abbott haters. But to imply that our soldiers and sailors are deliberately doing the wrong thing! This is too much. Catholics who are loyal to our Holy Catholic Faith and loyal to Australia expect an apology from Mr Tony Kevin.

Ron Cini | 21 February 2014  

No body doubts that there are serious human rights abuses associated with the whole business of displaced peoples seeking refuge, Mr Kevin. You claim that the Australian government needs to answer for serious abuses that have occurred with deaths at sea and the violence that has happened in detention centres over recent times. You must of course be referring to the Labor government that is responsible for the current shambles. Surely! That would be asking too much, I suspect. However your blinkered view does become a little tiresome.

john frawley | 21 February 2014  

The Coalition and Labor are both responsible for treating asylum seekers badly and encouraging Australians to manifest their prejudices and intolerance. Malcolm Fraser and Waleed Aly both have excellent commentaries in today's SMH and, of course, Sarah Hanson-Young remains persistent in her criticism of Australia's disgusting disregard for these people fleeing terrible situations.

Ann | 21 February 2014  

Jackie has asserted that to consider than the RAN has been negligent is tantamount to treason. Of course it has and not only in the matter of his treatment f asylum seekers. If that is so, happy to be regarded as a traitor by yourself. Ron Cini thinks that "faithful Catholics" deserve an apology from Tony Kevin. No, I don't. Speak only for yourself, Ron.

JR | 21 February 2014  

Sovereignty is not an excuse to abuse human rights and murder people. But Jackie, this is about Australia invading the sovereignty of other countries and getting people killed.

Marilyn | 21 February 2014  

Quoth "Jackie" "To suggest that the navy or ADF has been negligent is all but treason." I've looked up the definition of Treason in the Criminal Code Act http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/cca1995115/sch1.html, and I can't find the bit about "suggesting the navy or ADF is negligent". Perhaps you could point out the relevant clause?

Simon Crase | 21 February 2014  

Marilyn. It might be helpful for the debate if you could outline those countries that Australia has invaded and murdered the people. Presumably none of the refugees would be from those countries - they would be terrified to come here I would suspect! I suppose you are talking about Afghanistan and Iraq. I can think of at least eight other countries that have produced refugees here, none of which have been invaded by Australia. Perhaps you are a tad emotional, maybe irrational and definitely inaccurate?

john frawley | 21 February 2014  

How do we know if Tony Kevin's suggestion re the slow rescuing of Asylum Seekers, requiring help at sea., are true or false. Was` there ever an independent inquiry into these catastrophes ???

Bernie Introna | 21 February 2014  

The Abbott Government position seems to be that we don't want to fulfil our obligations under the Refugee Convention, and we won’t, so don't come. Whatever your rights might be as asylum seekers, we are not going to respect them, we will stop you, and we will make your life very bad if you do try to exercise your rights. This seems to be similar to the US South when black children had a right to go to desegregated white schools, but those in power in the South, including the Arkansas Governor, decided they would just disregard the black children’s rights. Instead the Governor used the Arkansas National Guard to block the entry of black children to white schools just as Abbott is using the Navy to block the entry of asylum seekers to Australia. In the US South, Federal troops then had to be brought in to protect the black children so that they could exercise their rights to study with white children in desegregated schools. This was an ugly episode in US history just as Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is an ugly episode in Australian history. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_little_rock_school_desegregation_1957/

Ray Polglaze | 21 February 2014  

No, Ray Polgaze, every nation has the obligation to accept genuine refugees. Illegal immigrants are sent back where they come from. The vast majority of Australians accept and welcome genuine refugees, and they have done it for the last 60 years or more, but they do not accept illegal immigrants to jump the queue and pay thousands of dollars to people smugglers to come to the country of their choice (beautiful Australia). Maybe you are more compassionate to the rest of Australia than what we are, but your stand on illegal immigrants delay helping genuine persecuted refugees to find peace in a free country.

Ron Cini | 21 February 2014  

Maybe John has already forgotten Afghanistan and Iraq? Two countries we invaded and slaughtered people.

Marilyn | 21 February 2014  

This is intentional thus Morrison is a murderer! The peoples court has decided, Abbott and Morrison....guilty as charged...murderers!

Sanna Andrew | 21 February 2014  

Without the sort of free and unfettered inquiry called for by Gillian Triggs I think we will remain collectively in the dark. The truth if ever independently established could contribute to informed debate on this subject.

Edward F | 22 February 2014  

It's interesting that a small group of readers of my essays - they tend to be the same people, but ames no pack drill, keep saying there is no evidence for my claims that there have been repeated acts of negligence in Australian rescues at sea of asylum seekers in trouble, resulting in avoidable deaths. They wax indignant and demand I apologise for defaming our brave ADF and Customs personnel. Well, I can only suggest they read the large archive of my articles in Eureka Street on this issue and if they wish to go deeper , read my free download book on www.reluctantrescuers.com. All the evidence as revealed publicly is there. The most glaring cases were SIEV358 in 2012 (inquest in Perth) and the boat that disappeared after sighting in distress near Christmas Island on 5 June 2013 - but there are many other cases that raise questions. . The evidence of negligence and cover-up is well documented in those sources. Of course I do not blame the brave seamen and women. I blame the system.

Ray Polglaze makes a good analogy with Governor George Wallace in Arkansas. Sadly, Tony Abbott is the Prime Minister of the nation, who is still ignoring and defying its national laws.

Tony Kevin | 22 February 2014  

Finger pointing does not aid the Manus ‘situation’ (Jackie, 21/2/14). As a veteran of Malaya (1963-64) and Vietnam (’64, 1966-67), I suffered the “shame” Australians dumped on Vietnam Veterans years after we returned ‘home’. To suggest the ADF created a situation that makes Robert Liddy (21/2/14) “ashamed to be an Australian” shows un-Australian naiveté. The ADF does what all servicemen and servicewomen do best, that is whatever our democratically elected government expects of us - “Our Duty”. The ADF put their lives at risk because many countries are not doing enough to halt the flow of refugees.
I also am sick of Christian beliefs being challenged because of a belief our borders need protection (Jackie op. cit.). Stories of deserving refugees who wait decades in detention camps – wherever - make me cringe. Our ADF risk their lives. Why criticize the ADF for protecting our sovereignty “under orders” by a government voted into office by e.g. the Liddy’s etc., and a majority vote? Why believe Australia invaded another country’s sovereignty? Indonesia does, unopposed, and in complete disregard for Australia’s sovereignty. People support ‘miscreant arrivals’, then spew hate against the ADF, whilst Labour shirks responsibility for the current shambles.

Karl H Cameron-Jackson | 22 February 2014  

Strategy and tactics differ. The strategic approach of the rioting asylum seekers on Manus is to make such nuisances of themselves that they WILL be attacked and bashed up by a third world police force. This exposition to danger will bring desired results for the brutalised. Does anyone believe that a single one of those wounded asylum will seekers WILL NOT be given permanent residency in Australia?

Claude Rigney | 22 February 2014  

Tony Kevin. If indeed your Eureka street submissions and your books are so definitively accurate, why did the recent inquiry in Western Australia reject your submission. I presume they were aware of your writings. Perhaps they had read sufficient?

john frawley | 24 February 2014  

How easily we become  a blind-eyed culture of forgetting falling into a pervasive atmosphere of intolerance "Make their lives bitter  scramble their brains for ever  take away their personhood  make them unperson scarecrows  in a toxic Limboland!" "And in the process make Australians   more than a little less human" 

John Cranmer | 24 February 2014  

To David Timbs I am not sure what custom inspection in Europe has to do with people smuggling? You may know or not know that not all countries in Europe do belong to the EU. Custom duties may apply in other countries. You may also be aware that you cannot bring in unlimited quantities of duty free goods into EU countries either. Every country has a right and obligation to check visitors. Australia for example has one of the toughest custom inspection regimes and for very good reason. We are one of the few countries in the world which has never been exposed to Foot and Mouth Disease, Rabies etc. Good border protection and quarantine laws are very important to Australia and other countries .

Beat Odermatt | 26 February 2014  

Oh Claude Rigney - when did such cynicism develop?

HelenH | 07 March 2014  

POWERLESSNESS breeds VIOLENCE It's as simple as that. When will we ever learn??

Patricia | 13 May 2014  

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