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The bi-partisanship shame of refugee policy

  • 02 August 2017
  What possessed Filippo Grandi, the relatively new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to go public last week, having a go at Australia for our government’s treatment of unvisaed asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat? He repeated UNHCR’s demand that Australia terminate offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island and that we not outsource our responsibilities to others. 

He claimed that UNHCR had agreed to the Australia-US deal back in November 2016 ‘on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle’ here. It is very rare for the Commissioner himself to make such public criticisms of any country.

No doubt, his Australian officers would have cautioned him that any such statement would be grist to the mill of Minister Peter Dutton preparing to take on his new super-ministry of Home Affairs. The timing of the statement also caused grief to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who was coming under pressure with the lead up to the ALP’s New South Wales conference at which the Left was to agitate the settlement of some proven refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in Australia. The day before UNHCR issued its statement, Barrie Cassidy had asked Shorten on ABC Insiders: ‘Is your policy that they would never, ever return to Australia?’ Shorten answered unequivocally, ‘That is part of it, yes, just to go to the short answer.’

The policy was first enunciated by Kevin Rudd when he returned to the prime ministership prior to the 2013 election. He joined Tony Abbott in a race to the bottom, pledging that any unvisaed asylum seeker coming by boat to Australia would be transported to a Pacific island and that they would never be able to come to Australia. Labor’s Sam Dastyari whose own grandparents sought and received asylum in Australia during John Howard’s prime ministership concedes that the refugee policies of the major political parties since 2013 have been ‘punitive’ and ‘inhumane’: ‘We went to (the 2013) election saying they would never come to Australia. That was Labor Party policy.’

In the lead up to the 2016 election, the bipartisan policy hit a road bump when the PNG Supreme Court struck down the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island. Such detention was not allowed under the PNG Constitution. Richard Marles, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Immigration, disclosed on ABC Lateline: ‘The agreement that we signed with the