Asylum seekers: Outside forces cannot shift debate

Focus, Normal

The National, Tuesday February 25th, 2014


On Sunday night we witnessed powerful images of a nationwide mass wake for the Kurdish Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati, who was killed last week on Manus Island. 

While this may mark the beginning of a strong movement for change, there is only one way to alter the course of public policy on refugees, and that is by changing the mind of the public – and it will only be effected from within Australia, not without.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ report into Manus Island has told us nothing we did not already know. 

The crises in offshore detention centres are rightly disconcerting, but those calling for further involvement by the UN are misguided. 

It’s impossible to see how the UN’s involvement will change the minds of people who voted for the current policies, and if anything, may rust them further to their cause.

When human rights commission chair Gillian Triggs wrote a piece for Fairfax at the weekend arguing that we “can’t outsource our moral obligations to these people”, she could have equally have been speaking of the UN. 

It is not a higher moral authority, rather a deeply flawed and toothless body of ineffective governance. 

One only needs to look to North Korea or Syria to appreciate its ineffectuality. 

The UNHCR’s only power is the press release; their outrage can only be measured by placing words in bold. 

It is clear a damning report will change neither public opinion nor bipartisan policy. 

It has been argued that like the rest of the organisation, the UNHCR may be more concerned with its size and status than its mission.

Australia is in breach of international human rights law, but these laws will not be enforced, nor Australia penalised. This is why the debate of humane treatment of refugees is one which must be conducted and won within Australia. 

We must judge policies on their adherence to the basic principles of human rights alone. Democratic opinion has moved us to the current policy position, and only swaying, not sacrificing democratic opinion will make it change.

Progressives yearn for change, so you’d think they would have greater insight as to how to effect it. The pro-asylum seeker movement may have momentum, but lacks strong leadership and clear message. 

The Greens are the only major party supporting liberal asylum seeker policies, but they too have used the debate as much for political advantage, as they have for seeking to effect policy change.

Jonathan Green wrote a powerful article in the lead-up to last year’s election, suggesting that the asylum seeker debate is “a proxy for issues – like the economy, housing and employment security”. 

With rising unemployment and an inevitable break to more than two decades without a recession, vitriol toward asylum seekers may only increase.

Looking closer, some alternatives are already being offered. 

Former Liberal party advisor Paula Matthewson floated the idea last week that the debate could be altered by seeing increased immigration as a path toward nation building, like the Snowy River Scheme, for the self-proclaimed “infrastructure prime minister” Tony Abbott. 

Liberal Democrats senator-elect David Leyonhjelm has called for a “front-door” asylum seeker charge, where asylum seekers are charged a tariff for entry, but are treated humanely and processed within Australia.

An appropriate parallel to changing public opinion is the case of David Hicks. 

A coalition of human rights groups, lawyers’ alliances, and public intellectuals maintained a robust public debate which led to 90% of Australians supporting a fair trial, resulting in opposition and back bencher pressure which changed government policy, leading the Howard government to strike a deal with the US to bring him home. What the Hicks case had, however, and which advocates for asylum seekers lack, is a common goal: A fast and fair trial.

The key part of the problem with the asylum seeker debate is the bipartisanship shown by the Liberal and Labor parties for offshore and inhumane detention policies. The only way we can conduct an effective debate is by polarisation within Australia, offering voters choice and accountability. The idea that we may solve the issue by outsourcing it to outsiders is absurd. –