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Published in CANBERRA TIMES 11 April 2013

When Prime Minister Gillard looked to appoint an expert body to examine refugee policy, she did not look to where she might find genuine knowledge and experience. She rather chose those that she felt would endorse her policies of deterrence and the unenforceable, quite unworkable and cruel Malaysian ‘Solution’.

She didn’t get all that she wanted but she got enough. Her experts had some pride they couldn’t appear to be examining policy at her direction, rubber stamps, but of course they were.

Had she chosen real experts she would have received advice that she did not want, advice, which was politically unpalatable. The chairperson of the expert group, Angus Houston, had no previously acknowledged expertise in the area of refugee policy, other than being head of the Defence Force at a time when the Royal Australian Navy was tasked with intercepting, and helping, refugees making the dangerous passage by sea in boats to Australia.

Houston recently demonstrated the extent to which he is a government cipher by claiming that all Sri Lankans arriving by boat were economic refugees. This assertion was made before boat arrivals from Sri Lanka have been given an opportunity to lodge and have their claims heard in terms of Australian and international law. It is a line of convenience run by the government of Sri Lanka and accepted by the Australia because it dovetails into domestic requirement to return refugees in order to establish political advantage.

Deterrence, as an instrument of policy toward refugees, has not and will not work. It completely ignores the factors driving people to get on dangerous boats and undertake risky and hazardous journeys, it completely ignores human nature and it is totally devoid of compassion and common sense. A proposal to release asylum seeking families into the community on Bridging Visas and not allow them to work, whilst paying them 89% of the new start allowance, is a cruel punishment on top of what they have already suffered. Refugees come to Australia to start a new life, which includes the opportunity to work. They come to Australia to start a new life, not to bludge.

Houston’s record on human rights is not outstanding. There is little on the public record to indicate he did much during his six years as head of the defence force to address the question of abuse of service personnel. His successor, General David Hurley, has shown a far greater commitment to the issue including a focus on quite serious grievances concerning serving members of the ADF.

Of the other members of the expert panel Michael L’Estrange can claim little expertise and the report of the select group, of which he was a member, appears to bear that out.

The third member, Paris Aristotle, has long been viewed with concern by refugee activists for seeking to play on either side of the fence and be all things to all men and women, when no such position exists within refugee advocacy, particularly over the past sixteen years.

The real experts on refugees are out of the loop, deliberately so, through decisions taken by Howard, Rudd and Gillard who have sought either to shamelessly politicise the issue for perceived electoral gain or have not had the moral courage to act, in accord with Australian domestic law and international conventions, to which we are signatories, and in so acting take the Australian public with them. To do that they would have had to handle strong domestic criticism; however they have demonstrated, through the recent attempt to ram through parliament the now failed press bill, that they fear criticism.

The opposition spokesperson on immigration, Scott Morrison, is at war with refugees. He gives every indication of not liking any of them, at least those arriving by boat. He appears to see refugees as gate crashers, aka, John Howard, “We will decide who comes here and when”. He is not alone, it is a sentiment shared by some within the Department of Immigration, who take their gate keeping responsibilities to levels matched only by night club bouncers. However they are not all to blame; the dysfunction of the two major parties must affect the capacity of the public service to formulate policy and discharge its duties.

Morrison is a nasty piece of work; he talks the talk of a bully and as such will come a cropper when boats keep appearing on the horizon after he becomes Minister. The Navy will not be party to causing deaths at sea, so he will need to hire mercenaries or pirates to tow his boats back. Morrison has failed to understand or comes to terms with the drive, initiative, desperation and courage of some refugees to escape persecution using ‘whatever it takes’. The latter he should understand because that what is driving both his own apparent personal vendetta and Coalition policy, if it can be referred to as such, toward individuals travelling to Australia by boat seeking refugee status.

Morrison and Abbott delude themselves if they think they can stop the boats. Short of sinking boats, they cannot and will not stop them. The needs of the refugees are far stronger than their puny political ambition.

Their appeal on this and other issues is to a nationalism and jingoism which resides within and amongst several narrow groups of Australians. This is an increasingly limited base on which to build a political future, it is not inclusive, it is short term and not likely to deliver long term political appeal, unless their government resorts to coercion, in all its many forms, to hold onto power. Heaven forbid.

Perhaps if refugee policy was formulated with the achievable aim of managing the boats a ‘solution’ might be possible. Managing boat arrivals requires a regional dialogue, with processing in Indonesia. If the rhetoric from Australian politicians about keeping asylum seekers off boats has any credibility, which I doubt, then processing on Indonesia would go a long way toward meeting the demands of the rhetoric.

Australia can use its position on the UN Security Council to add weight to a regional dialogue, or were it so inclined, to implement revised arrangements for the processing of all refugees in the region under an appropriate arrangement or MOU.

Australia might use its position on the Security Council to press for the processing of Tamil asylum seekers on Sri Lanka under UN supervision. They might also seek the intervention of a small UN peace keeping force to protect Tamils, particularly in the north of the country, from persecution amounting to genocide. Several weeks ago a million students in the state of Tamil Nadu went on strike to protest these ongoing abuses by the Sri Lankan government and the government of that state has recently banned Sri Lankan players.

And as a postscript, the Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrived in Geraldton Harbour on 9 April are perfectly entitled to do so. They have done nothing wrong. Their arrival and subsequent claims are covered by the UN Convention on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory and from which it has not withdrawn. The essential parts of the Convention have been incorporated in Australian law. Excising Australian islands or parts of the mainland do not exterminate the rights of asylum seekers under the Convention or Australian law. The Australian government has chosen to act in defiance of the Convention and its own laws. What a sorry state of affairs. Abbott continues to confuse immigrants and asylum seekers, whilst having us believe he is sufficiently sophisticated to run the country.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former Member of the Refugee Tribunal.