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The politics of asylum-seeking children



The dynamics between the major political parties are a key factor delaying prompt action on the fate of the children of asylum seekers in detention on Nauru. Having said that the whole business is yet another example of the public being kept in the dark as to what is happening.

Real Australians say welcome posterThe numbers of children on Nauru are reportedly falling and it would appear that medical evacuation to Australia is becoming more flexible. Yet, confusing what he mistakenly calls 'showboating' for proper transparency on a matter of public concern, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, continues to speak in riddles.

The government and the opposition are prevaricating and effectively delaying the positive outcome that many in the Australian public are crying out for. The time is ripe for action, but decisive policy movement is still absent.

The Coalition, while apparently recognising public concerns, wants to maintain its perceived advantage as the party of tough border security policies to the extent that they don’t want to claim any credit for perceived developments in releasing the children to come to the mainland. They appear to be loosening policy in administrative practice but not in principle.

The opposition remain dead scared of taking any risk of appearing soft on border security. In part, this is the opposition’s generally careful approach to the next federal election. It boils down to minimising any dangerous issues by sticking close to Coalition policies. It sees border security as one such issue. Any disunity would be pounced on by the government.

Labor MPs and candidates hold to the party position despite many wishing to break ranks. A good example is Dr Brian Owler, the former Australian Medical Association (AMA) president, who has just been preselected by Labor to contest the NSW seat of Bennelong now held by John Alexander for the Liberals. Owler has in the past, representing official AMA policy, been a critic of detention for children but now appears to be toeing the party line. As a new candidate he is put in a difficult position.

Where is the breakthrough likely to come from?


"The Coalition leadership now wish to resolve the issue while not weakening their public reputation for being tough on border protection and/or the messages they are sending to potential people smugglers. Strategically they also want to hold onto their advantage over Labor and not stir up disunity within the Coalition party rooms."


The first possibility is continued pressure from peak organisations, like the Refugee Council of Australia, the churches, the medical profession and community refugee action groups like those responsible for Palm Sunday marches and other street-level activities.

Such groups are keen to keep up the pressure on the government, but also to target the Labor Party because they believe they have a rational case which should appeal to the opposition. The argument is that surveys show increasing popular sympathy for the Nauru children and asylum seekers more generally (80 per cent want children and their families off the island). But refugee advocates find it hard to convince Labor MPs to put this position from a public platform.

The second possible breakthrough may come from the crossbench, strengthened and energised by the election of Dr Kerryn Phelps, another former AMA president, in Wentworth. Phelps made the wellbeing of the Nauru children one of her campaign priorities alongside climate change.

Now that the Morrison government has been reduced to minority status, the cross-bench, supported by retiring Liberal Julia Banks, has some bargaining power. Phelps and Cathy McGowan in Indi represent former Liberal seats and Andrew Wilkie in Denison (Tasmania) has some national credibility. Adam Bandt (Greens, Melbourne) can inject the Greens' opposition to detention on Nauru into the House of Representatives.

The Coalition leadership now wish to resolve the issue while not weakening their public reputation for being tough on border protection and/or the messages they are sending to potential people smugglers. Strategically they also want to hold onto their advantage over Labor and not stir up disunity within the Coalition party rooms.

The latter may be the biggest obstacle to resolving the matter because both Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott will need to be convinced. Neither will hesitate to go public, as Abbott already has, to oppose any weakening of the government’s position, other than those who are being accepted by the USA under the Turnbull–Obama agreement.

Community pressure groups and the cross-bench can work together to free the children on Nauru, while recognising that longer-term questions, such as their long-term status with their families in Australia, remain unanswered. Now is the time, in the lead-up to the next election, to push harder than ever.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. Image: Michael Coghlan \ Flickr

Topic tags: John Warhurst, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Politics always has power as its agenda, and I believe this is why leaders can justify the harsh and cruel treatment to innocent children who are in detention. Power is everything in the life of a political party. It means our politicians must turn a blind eye to social human rights such as human dignity. Virtues and ethics fly out the window and instead leaders turn a blind eye to human qualities such as compassion and care. Politicians thrive on rhetoric and fancy speeches, and recently a marvellous apology to child victims of abuse. But make no mistake, these people who claim to govern on our behalf are motivated solely by fear of losing, they must not lose control (of who comes to Australia), but most at all they must not lose their prized position of being in power.

Trish Martin | 08 November 2018  

I just wish that Catholic Bishops would put as much energy and political pressure into solving this problem as they did in convincing the government and opposition to increase/considerably alter the subsidy to catholic schools : priorities??

John cooney | 08 November 2018  

I couldn't agree more both with the article and especially John Cooney's comment regarding the catholic bishops. Without singling out anyone where is Anthony Fisher when this issue is raised? All talk about public money for catholic schools and even arguing that this public money could b used to hire and fire as necessary according to these bishops. Where is the compassion for refugees?

Tom Kingston | 09 November 2018  

Well written John, I totally support John Cooney's call. The CBC (Catholic Bishops Conference) really could put considerable pressure on the two main political parties, particularly if the Catholic laity is called on to support their stance. Please lets see some action NOW!

Gavin O'Brien | 09 November 2018  

The danger in involving the Catholic Bishops' Conference is that they would probably bugger things up even further if the past record is any indicator!

john frawley | 09 November 2018  

Yes, the Catholic Bishops need to speak our more on the cruel treatment of asylum seekers and they need to speak out more on many other social justice issues. When the Bishops do speak out, they also need to be supported by Catholic priests. At the Mass I attended recently on Social Justice Sunday, the officiating priest, an Indian priest, made not one mention of Social Justice, or of the Bishops statement on homelessness, although I believe our parish priest gave an excellent homily on these issues at another Mass.

Grant Allen | 09 November 2018  

I really, really wish someone could tell us what on earth our borders have to do with torturing kid in another country that is not our border.

Marilyn | 09 November 2018  

I’ve been trying to figure out why they’ve been a bit quiet on the matter in recent times. Except for Bishop Long. I visited 3 churches on Migrant and Refugee Sunday last year and not a word was mentioned! Devastated. Haven’t been back since really.

Val | 09 November 2018  

Neat analysis, John Warhurst, and it couldn't be a better time, John Cooney, as you suggest, for a clarion call to action on the refugee front from the Catholic Bishops. However, the Bishops are mired in their own public policy macchinations with the government, not simply to do with exercising Catholic school-funding policy leverage but also gaining exemptions on the GLBTIQ student-enrolment and teacher-employment policy front. Ask +Anthony Fisher, since you mention him, Tom Kingston, and who gave the government's refugee policy a resounding public endorsement at the last general election. By way of shaming contrast, our sister churches (the Anglicans & Uniting, especially) have come out as strongly as possible on this issue. Go figure, guys :(

Michael Furtado | 10 November 2018  

I agree with John Coooney,whole hartedly... The best suggestion so far.the church has spoken, with the 'view of helping the marginalised and the vulnerable as Jesus taught and did himself... Now they must empower and encourage the laity to do the same.. It is their duty.,!!

Bernie Introna | 11 November 2018  

One aspect of the bipartisan approach to asylum seekers who arrive by boat is offshore processing. Both the government and opposition are adamant that offshore processing remain in place, but while they imply this means keeping the refugees in Manus and Nauru as hostages, in reality the government could not have have agreed to the US deal if this were the case. The effectiveness of the turnback policy is that there have been no new asylum seekers arrivals in Manus and Nauru for several years. ie. the cohort is decreasing - not increasing. It seems to me that the policy of offshore processing could be left in place even while the humanitarian issue of adults and children being confined to Manus and Nauru for 5+ years is dealt with now by moving all remaining refugees in this cohort, to either the US, New Zealand or Australia.

Harold Zwier | 11 November 2018  

A neat solution it may well be on your terms, Harold Zwier, but confining refugees to regions outside our jurisdiction in return for the payment of large bribes to their surrogate captors and without recourse to an appeals process is actually an abuse of human rights. It helps to acknowledge that asylum seekers are not 'illegals' and that we have a statutory obligation to accept them and process their applications for asylum in terms of our UN membership obligations. The myth-making and distortion of facts entailed in justifying this state of affairs is an assault on our democratic values and reputation for upholding the principles of liberty, due process and integrity.

Michael Furtado | 20 December 2018  

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