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Stopping the boats at any cost


Asylum seeker boat

The last weeks have shown how far the Australian Government is prepared to go in order to deny the claim for protection made by people who come to Australia by boat. 

The Government has acted to nullify the effect of the June High Court decision that declared unlawful the cap imposed by the Government on permanent protection visas.  The cap, which had been set so low that it effectively excluded all current applications, was designed to nullify an earlier Senate vote that disallowed Government regulations reintroducing temporary protection visas. 

The Government responded to the High Court decision by reserving all decisions on permanent protection to the Minister. His decisions, based on a National Interest Test, would not be open to review by the Refugee Review Tribunal.  Minister Scott Morrison indicated that he would reject all applications made by unlawful maritime arrivals.  

Under the National Interest test, no visa would be allowed if the grant would erode the confidence of the community in Australia’s Immigration Policy, would offer a product that people smugglers could market, would favour people who arrived unlawfully in Australia over other applicants, or would affect negatively Australia’s relationships with other nations.  

Like the Dictation Test devised devised to enforce the White Australia Policy, the National Interest Test would allow the Minister to exclude anyone he wanted. It was also calculated to thwart the expressed will of Parliament and to deny effect to a ruling by the High Court.  It was an expression of untrammelled executive power.  

The Government’s determination to do whatever it takes was also shown in the legislation it has introduced to redefine the interpretation of the duty to protect refugees. Signatories to the  United Nations High Commission Convention on the Status of Refugees commit themselves to treat as refugees those with a well founded fear of persecution. The fear of persecution has been taken to be well founded if there is a real chance of persecution.  The new legislation redefines a well founded fear as demanding a more than 50% chance of persecution.  

This change may seem quibbling with words. But you can appreciate the difference if you imagine taking your sick child to a hospital and being turned away because, although there was only a real chance of her being seriously ill, it could not be said to be more likely than not.  Or imagine a woman calling the police to a situation where she feared sexual violence, only to be told that they accepted there a real risk, but that they could not attend unless she could show that it was more likely than not that she would be raped. The change licenses a reduction in the duty of care to vulnerable people. 

The third sign of the government’s determination to deal with people who claim protection from Australia has been the affair of the Tamil boats. The secrecy with the business has been shrouded is itself a mark of the militarisation of the response to asylum seekers. But the Minister has now disclosed that a boatload of Tamil people was intercepted by the Australian navy, that 41 people and a dog were transferred to a Sri Lankan naval vessel without any proper opportunity to claim protection or have their claims assessed, and were handed over to the Sri Lankan police on arrival.  This conduct struck at the heart of Australia’s commitments, and was strongly criticised by the UNHCR.  A High Court injunction was obtained to prevent the transfer of asylum seekers on other boats.

Taken together these actions spell out what doing what it takes to stop the boats means both for the Government that stops and for the people who are stopped. For people who claim protection it means that they will not receive it from Australia.  They can be confident that the Australian Government will not have them or their dogs killed, but they will have no confidence that they will not be placed in dangerous situations or returned to places where they fear for their lives.   

For the Government, doing what it takes involves circumventing the will of parliament, ensuring that the decisions of courts will not be given effect and neutering the conventions to which it is a signatory. It sees these things as essential to deter people from boarding the boats.

Many Australians will approve its determination to stop the boats at any cost, and see the suffering of those affected as an acceptable cost. Others will grieve for people whose sufferings are inflicted on them as part of what it takes, and worry for the public life of a nation in which Parliament and the courts are of no account when they interfere with the will of the Government.

And no doubt there will be some with a more partisan spirit who would like the Government to show equal creativity and determination in getting its budget through. And still others who will be quietly satisfied to see a Government set on doing whatever it takes dig its own grave.

When people do whatever it takes the one sure thing is that decency and respect are lost, first for their victims, but later for themselves. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of
Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Scott Morrison, asylum seekers, Sri Lanka, National Interest Test



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Existing comments

Andrew, great article - puts the situation into a rational and sensible context. Agree totally with your conclusions.

Andrew Teece | 10 July 2014  

Thanks for spelling it all out so clearly Andrew. Morrison's not much of an advertisement for Christianity, nor for human decency. But he's got his Great Leader's confidence (He's not much of an advertisement for Jesuit schools either.) Tony Abbott's insistence yesterday that his government will not be 'held over a moral barrel' by people self-harming in Immigration Detention marks a new level of shamelessness. Suddenly these wretched people are cast as the aggressors and the government is the innocent victim of their tactics. Jo Bjelke Petersen would have been proud of that one.

Joe Castley | 10 July 2014  

Andy, Thank you for your ongoing writings which highlight the terrible plight of the asylum seekers. As Catholics, as Christians one must ask where are our priorities, where do we stand in not joining in a campaign to be 'a voice' for these our sisters and brothers who are so terribly treated in the name of our government? Thank you once again for your clear and concise article.

Joan | 10 July 2014  

Shame on you Australia!

Ronaldi Gultom | 10 July 2014  

Thank you so much for yet another clear and balanced comment.

Susan Connelly | 10 July 2014  

Why can't the Government simply hold a boat arrivals in reasonable detention camps in Australia for a period of time equal to that which the last approved arrival had to wait, plus a penalty period if absolutely necessary. Maybe this may last for up to 8 years, but it is better for many than being sent back.

Brian D | 10 July 2014  

The late US President Ronald Reagan once said: “A nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.” Although I reluctantly agree that the Government has mandate to find a long term solution for the refugee settlement on our soil, its modus oprerandi is unjustifiable. Refugees under the Coalition Government are no longer seen as human beings but unwanted objects. As Andrew Hamilton rightly put it: “When people do whatever it takes the one sure thing is that decency and respect are lost, first for their victims, but later for themselves.” Both (catholic) Abbot and Morrison should heed Pope Francis recent call: "It is necessary to put the dignity of the human person at the centre of every plan and every action. Other interests, even legitimate ones, are secondary." Toan Nguyen.

Toan Nguyen | 10 July 2014  

How low can an Immigration minister go? The slogan "Stop the boats" was a brilliant piece of propaganda - up there with Lenin's promise to the Russian people in 1917 - "Bread, Land and Peace". Anything could be justified in achieving those goals. The Bolsheviks had no scruples about legality, property, and obligations to one's allies. I see resort to the same Leninist authoritarianism in Abbott's and Morrison's hiding behind their alleged mandate of "Stopping the boats." Thank God, we do have a legal system in which some decent refugee advocates work so hard to expose the dehumanising consequences of the rigid policy of stopping the boats.

Uncle Pat | 10 July 2014  

Thanks Andy for such a succinct and clear statement of the moral depths to which we have sunk. Selfishness trumps compassion yet again

Carey McIver | 10 July 2014  

Do our politicians realise that sending refugees back to a country when there is a 50% chance of their being persecuted means that for every hundred people they send back fifty will be persecuted — killed or tortured or abused in other ways? That's what fifty percent means.

Gavan Breen | 10 July 2014  

Excellent article Andy. I hope your words reach enough people to convert hearts and minds. So ashamed of our government at the moment.

Kim Power | 10 July 2014  

Andrew, somehow, even though I despair of the situation, it is relief to read your article, setting out so clearly what this government is prepared to do in its determination to 'stop the boats'. I'm curious as to whether the government can be held to account for disregarding our constitutional balance of power by assuming the authority of executive power is paramount. The government has obviously searched and found loopholes but surely what it is doing ignores the spirit of the balance of powers.

Anna | 10 July 2014  

If the boats are not stopped, the outcome will be that we stand the risk of importing and nurturing potential threats. Our nation and people will be at risk and we must protect that sovereignty. It is the fundamental means of patriotism. All else at this time to degrade the risk management is foolishness and dangerously near treasonous. That's what it is all about. No amount of "do-gooder" efforts can distort the fact that the risk is very high and mitigation as it is now being done is the best measure for now. As the situation improves, we can mitigate further.

Research Action | 10 July 2014  

Consequentialism in politics and ethics says : possible bad futures trump present wrongs. Golden rule says : Don't do to others now what you would not want done to you or loved ones Abbott is a consequentialist.

David Ardagh | 10 July 2014  

Accusing our Prime Minister Tony Abbott (Catholic) and Scott Morrison (Christian) of not being good Christians for stopping the boat-peoples paying thousands of dollars to people-smugglers and risking to lose their lives, travelling in leaking boats, make Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott "He's not much of an advertisement for Jesuit Schools". It is not true, actually what they are doing is to save lives and allow getting genuine refugees, especially so many of our Brothers and Sisters in Christ that are persecuted for their faith all over the world to legitimately settle in Australia. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison are true and Compassionate Christians. They have not been brainwashed by the Greens, the Left wing or Bill Shorten who will do anything he can, to destroy Tony Abbott.

Ron Cini | 10 July 2014  

What is needed is a policy that respects what Andrew Hamilton has written but at the same time defends the social integrity of Australia. The complete loopyness of the Greens is as stupid as the hatred of Australia First. 1) Boat people are human and should be treated as such 2 Australia is a society based on Judaeo-Christian Social principles and all who come here should be required to affirm their acceptance of the continuance of these principles. 3) The Greens are just as hostile to these principles if not more so than the Islamo-fascists who we trying to keep out. 4) The great majority of Muslims are not Islamo-Fascist and an even greater percentage of Christian Sudanese, Tamils and Buddhist refugees can be integrated. 5) The Menzian / Calldwallian word Integration should be the prime responsibility of Government not the running of concentration camps. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson | 11 July 2014  

Our government lacks compassion on this issue.

Madonna Purcell fmm | 11 July 2014  

Bravo Mr Hamilton!

Philippa | 11 July 2014  

Is the Australian populace's opposition to the government's border protection policy and methods for dealing with asylum seekers/illegal immigrants the merely limited to generating a bit of qwerty-based vitriol whilst awaiting the next election?

Jacque | 11 July 2014  

Hello Andrew, When Fr Donald Mackillop SJ worked in NT (19th century) with the Aboriginals, he stood up for their rights. Fr Mackillop wrote in 1892 to the Sydney Morning Herald saying "Australia, as such, does not recognise the right of the black man to live. She marches onward truly, but not perhaps the fair maiden we paint her. The black fellow sees blood on that noble forehead, callous cruelty in her heart, her heel is of iron and his helpless countrymen beneath her feet. But we are strong and the blacks are weak; we have rifles, they but spears; we love British fair play, and having got hold of this Continent we have every square foot." Australia is no different today. It still does not believe in the right for the black/dark skinned Indian person to live. White skinned persons don't have to have skills, they are afforded jobs by virtue of colour. Who is standing up for the skilled dark skinned indian professional who must pay with their career for the white man lack of skill? As a Catholic, I must say this as we will all face God one day and you can't say you didn't know.

Jackie | 12 July 2014  

Well said Andy. The policies of both major parties on asylum seekers is unutterably cruel and unnecessary. Our borders are not threatened by boat people. How many of these people have been found to be terrorists? I would say None. And do our Government really think that the boat people would undertake dangerous boat trips if they had an alternative to suffering persecution? It is good of the government to be concerned for their safety, but the boat people have assessed the risks and decided they are worth taking. How can we in our comfortable land disagree with their choice to such and extent that we will do anything to stop them?

Tony Santospirito | 14 July 2014  

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