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Published in The Canberra Times

The performance of Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, over the past ten months, makes a Royal Commission into Australian asylum seeker ‘policy’ inevitable and urgent.

Morrison claims that his rigidly defined and ruthlessly enforced program of deterrence toward asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat has proven a success. In the face of an information blackout we only have his word for it and that is not worth much. We do know that two boats were intercepted in July and that the mistreatment of all 157 on one boat is now the subject of an action in the High Court.

Refugees continue to arrive in Indonesia and it is only a matter of time before Australia is asked to take some if not all, on the basis that Australia not Indonesia is their destination. The policy of deterrence is a short term solution to a much bigger problem, it is unsustainable. The solution to the issue of boat arrivals is not deterrence but management which should include processing in partnership with Indonesia.

Morrison claims, without conviction or credibility, that what motivates him to pursue his unsustainable hard line is the thought of children drowning at sea. He has said he does not want naval or customs personnel to have to look into the faces of drowned children. An appeal he appears to believe will resonate with a sympathetic public. His logic, if that is what it is, is skewed. The same appeal of saving lives can be used for children locked in detention and it has been. He has merely provided a life vest for Howard’s, ‘we will decide who comes here’.

Appearing on Friday 22 August before the Human Rights Commission enquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Morrison was asked by Commission President, Gillian Triggs, “Why do you believe that stopping the boats and stopping the drownings…can be achieved by detaining children…?” Morrison responded, “Frankly Madam President the results speak for themselves.”

Triggs rightly noted that there was no evidence for this assertion. Deterrence has become the untested mantra of both major parties. Morrison was accompanied to the hearing by the Secretary of his department Martin Bowles. They both sparked and personally attacked (bullied) Triggs when she described the Christmas Island detention centre as a prison, which it is. Both men argued that the treatment of children in detention offshore is adequate despite a body of professional advice to the contrary. The hearing also heard that minors had been subjected to force on Christmas Island when being moved from one compound to another.

Morrison and Bowles do not have the moral high ground to argue the justice of the ‘policy’ they preside over. On 7 August the Sydney Morning Herald revealed what some have long known, there is widespread corruption within the Department of Immigration. Material obtained under Freedom of Information detail widespread visa fraud centred on people arriving by plane. The revelations add weight to calls for a Royal Commission into Australia’s asylum seeker ‘policy’ and issues surrounding it including administration.

The overwhelming need for a Royal Commission was spelt out by successful Australian business woman, Janet Holmes a Court, in an address in Hobart on 15 August. She attacked what she said was the Abbott government’s policy of deterrence and the suffering associated with it, especially on Nauru, saying it would have dire consequences for Australia.

In an announcement which appeared timed to influence his treatment at the Commission hearing, Morrison said that 150 children under 10 would be released from onshore detention into community detention. As we have come to see his announcement raised more questions than it answered about the ongoing welfare of these children and of asylum seekers. At the same time there were media reports that Morrison proposed to send 1,000 asylum seekers to Cambodia.

Morrison, and Bowles at an earlier hearing, argued that there was too much emotion brought to the issue of detention and deterrence. Nonetheless Morrison proceeded to drape the hearing in emotion by claiming, as a father of children, he had an understandable concern for the welfare of all children. It was a crass and cheap shot to drag his children into the mire of his own making.

Particularly so when nothing in his demeanour and manner of speaking indicate compassion or concern for asylum seekers, quite the opposite, he appears to relish his role as the tough guy in some sort of quasi military role; the Abbott attack dog. One expects him to one day front the media in military vestments.

In the face of continued savagery in Syria and Iraq, Morrison announced, also in the same week that he appeared before Triggs, 4,400 places for refugees from these war zones. There was no mention of places for Palestinians. However it was a hollow gesture, as the government has reduced the refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,750 and the places would come from a much reduced Special Humanitarian Program of 7,750.

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition says the decision is hypocritical as it does nothing for the Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers in Australian detention. “The government’s mantra of ‘stopping the boats’ has got nothing to do with helping refugees in Iraq and Syria; it’s got everything to do with the government helping its own domestic agenda.”

And it may not even be doing that. As a domestic issue asylum seekers and boats have gone off the radar in the face of the monumental budget stuff up, where the government has managed to alienate many of its supporters. The government has lost the fiscal plot with the punters far more worried about their back pockets than ‘illegal’s’ coming through the back door.

The zeal with which Morrison and Abbot persecute boat people and will soon, in the name of fighting terrorism pursue Muslim travellers, underlines the racism contained within Abbott’s slogan of ‘Team Australia’. But his team is the B Team and not one for which many Australians aspire to play whilst the rules include demonising asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, students, the sick and disabled, pensioners and the disadvantaged including Aboriginal Australians.

The more things change the more they remain the same. In the 10 December 1977 edition of The Bulletin magazine the otherwise conservative columnist, Peter Samuel, argued a case for accepting refugees from South Vietnam. The previous Whitlam government had been reluctant to do so, having sympathised with the political aims of the North Vietnamese. Samuel argued, “…I have found it extremely difficult to accept with equanimity the cheap sneers and repellent ‘labelling’ of refugees…Refugees are refugees, wherever they come from. One really does not, if one retains a shred of decency, try to deny them asylum by making foul accusations against them – accusations that could not possibly be based on any knowledge at all.”

He might have been referring to the illegal detention of over 50 Tamils from Sri Lanka, found to be refugees, but detained by ASIO on allegations of terrorism supplied by the government they were fighting in a bloody and protracted civil war.

In the same article Samuel opines, “There is something self-selecting it seems in people willing to board small boats for the hazardous sea voyage to Australia’s shores…The boat people cannot be ‘intercepted’ as some bigots suggest because interference with shipping on the high seas is piracy. And they cannot be ‘turned back’ or ‘flown back’ because that would be sentencing heroes to deprivation and death, and destroying Australia’s moral standing in the world.”

And so it is.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, former diplomat and member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.