Monday, 14 July 2014
Before September 2001, I had not given much thought to Australia's policies in relation to asylum seekers or the politics of this question. I suspect I am not alone. Since then, it has been very different. The arrival of the people on the MV Tampa in Australian waters clearly represented a watershed moment in Australian politics and society. In 2001, I was a small part of the legal team that acted on behalf of the asylum seekers on the Tampa. This involvement, more than anything else, led me towards seeking election to this place.
I am acutely and uncomfortably conscious of the parallels between then and now as we consider the circumstances of people who are aboard two boats in the Indian Ocean. Of course, this is not about me, any more than it should be about Minister Morrison's scorecard. This is a debate that goes to the heart of how we, as Australians, see ourselves. How developed nations meet their obligations to the world's most vulnerable people is a vital and pressing question, as is the matter of how we democratically engage with this question.
In considering the parallels between September 2001 and July 2014, I am concerned not only about how we treat those asking us for help but also the fundamental questions of the effective operation of our democracy that arose then. They must be dealt with now. How extraordinary it is that Australians are informed about what is going on in respect to the people in our care through the Solicitor-General addressing the High Court, not the Minister for Immigration responding to the parliament.
It seems that this is why, as David Marr has written, the government regards the law as the enemy within. That is because it shines a light, even more so than because 'secrecy works best'. As Marr puts it:
The harder it is to know what’s happening on the Indian Ocean, the tougher it is for lawyers to get traction.
This is a debate constrained by rhetoric, by an absence of information, by things we do not know and by things we are prevented from knowing. We are not alone in confronting these challenges. Two weekends ago, 5,000 people were picked up by patrol boats in the Mediterranean. Sometimes a bit of context is useful.
As the UNHCR has reminded us:
… anyone claiming asylum has a right to have their case properly assessed by qualified personnel in accordance with the necessary procedural and legal safeguards.
Asylum seekers are people, who should be afforded the same dignity and respect that we would want for ourselves if we were in need. Surely, this is not too much to ask. Surely, this question of rights deserves to be squarely addressed and not deflected or ignored. Saying something is compassionate does not make it so and asserting that we must be cruel to be kind does not prove that point either. Fundamentally, compassion requires empathy and understanding.
But this government operates in a perpetual shroud of secrecy, wilfully obscuring facts and stories that the people of Australia have a right to know, understand and emphasise with. We are simply meant to take their word for it that people are being treated humanely and that their claims for asylum are being properly assessed and processed. People seeking asylum need to be processed in facilities that are safe, dignified and humane. We need to know that human beings in our care are being dealt with fairly and decently.
It is worth noting that in the present circumstances this need not be a debate over policy settings. As the member for Corio has noted, those seeking asylum on the two boats could have been assessed offshore. He said:
The government has options. The reason they are not taking those options is because they want to protect nothing other than a political scoreboard—and that is not good enough and in the process what they are doing is trashing this country's international reputation.
Of course, this government—like the Howard government in 2001—could not care less about our international reputation or our obligations. It seeks to reduce this debate to its lowest common denominator and so it is in thrall to its rhetoric and not to anyone's best interests. In asking Australians to choose fear over hope, it constructs threats in the place of vulnerable human beings and denies us access to their stories—even for the purposes of testing those stories.
Chest beating, at the end of the day, cannot hide the weakness at the core of this government's position. A government with the courage of its convictions would not hide from scrutiny—scrutiny in the parliament, scrutiny by the courts and scrutiny by Australians at large. The policy challenges of asylum are vast, but this need not be so of the politics. If we start by recognising our common humanity and supporting the strength of our great democratic institutions, I am confident that we would do better.